Coco

This past weekend, I finally had the opportunity to watch Disney/Pixar’s film, Coco. It tells the story of a boy who wants to be a musician, but music is banned in his family of practical shoemakers because his great-great grandfather abandoned the family to pursue his own musical dreams. The boy, Miguel, gets transported to the land of the dead on Día de los Muertos and learns the truth about his family history along with ways to bring the power of music back to his family. I was warned that it was an emotionally affecting tale. I teared up anyway. If you haven’t seen it yet, you should.

Día de los Muertos has held a special place in my heart for a long time now. Although I’m ethnically some mix of German and Celt, my family has lived in Nuevo México for more than a century. Día de los Muertos is actively celebrated in Mesilla and Las Cruces—and I live next to a cemetery. Family and their stories have long been important to me as a writer and Día de los Muertos is all about remembering family and their stories.

Listening to the film’s commentary track, it was clear the filmmakers took care to represent the celebration as authentically as possible. This pleased me, but it also gave me something to think about. A week before on the NPR food show, “Milk Street Radio,” a chef talked about the fallacy of creating culturally authentic dishes. The reason he described it as a fallacy is that what foods and cooking appliances are available in a region change and shift with time. What’s more cultures shift as people migrate and as technology changes. The food he cooks in America today is closer to what he grew up with than the food cooked now in his hometown.

Día de los Muertos is very much a part of Southern New Mexico’s culture and the film’s depiction is almost identical to what you’ll see here. Almost is one of the keys. While people celebrate at the cemetery, we also have ofrendas on the Mesilla town square. While you see marigolds like they had in the movie, we see a lot of other flowers as well. We even say “Día de los Muertos” while other people say “Día de Muertos.” Both have been used to describe the celebration going back to the sixteenth century and both are used in the movie. The former is literally “Day of the Dead” while the latter tends to be a more specific reference to All Souls Day.

In recent years, I’ve often seen culture erected like a wall to keep outsiders at bay. I prefer it when culture exists as a bridge to allow others a glimpse into the important aspects of people’s lives. That’s why I liked Coco. That’s also why I set a pivotal scene at a Día de los Muertos celebration in my novel Owl Dance. You can learn more about the novel at: http://www.davidleesummers.com/owl_dance.html

I’ll wrap up today’s post with a poem I wrote back in 2003 that gives you a glimpse of the importance of Día de los Muertos to my family. Christina Sng published it in her zine Macabre the following spring.

Pan de Muerto

All Soul’s Day—The Day of the Dead—
Picnics and parties at the cemetery.
Gravestones decorated with flowers,
Pinwheels, photos, favorite toys,
Candies and pan de muerto—
The Bread of the Dead.

My daughter and I make the bread.
She beats the eggs—even in death,
There is the memory of new life.
I add the orange essence—memory
Of the orange trees Grandpa—
My dad—loved so much.

Together, my daughter and I add the
flour—grown from the soil where
Grandpa now rests. Together we
Kneed the dough—making a
Connection across time.
Grandfather to father to daughter.

We set the bread out with a photo,
Some Halloween candy, and many
Happy memories. Sleep that night is
Restless. There is a chill in the air.
Morning comes and a chunk is gone
From the Bread of the Dead.

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Tips for a Successful Author Reading

On Friday, I had a great time giving a reading at Potions Lounge, a speakeasy bar on Bourbon Street in New Orleans managed by Marita Crandle, owner of Boutique du Vampyre. I love reading from my work and, in recent years, I almost always sell books as a result of my readings. Unfortunately, readings are not always well attended, especially at venues such as science fiction conventions. The reason is simply that many readings don’t prove to be memorable experiences and people skip them for other events. Below I present a few tips that have worked for me when giving readings.

Don’t read from the book

This may sound counterintuitive, but allow me to explain. Often at a reading, the first thing I see someone do is pull out a copy of their novel and start reading from it. It seems like a good idea because you’re reading the words as they were published and you’re showing off your book. The problem is that font sizes and bindings often mean you have to hold the book closer to your face than ideal. It also can be surprisingly easy to lose your place, especially if you look up to make eye contact with the audience.

I took a lesson from my days in choir. I print out my reading with a nice, easy to read font on one side of the paper and put it in a notebook. It allows me to hold the book further away, making it easier to look up from time to time and make eye contact. If you want to show off your cover on what you’re reading from, you can print out a nice copy and slip it into the plastic sleeve on the front of the binder. Better yet, bring your book and prop it up on a table while you read.

Go slow

When I’m nervous, I start talking faster. When I talk faster, I stumble over my words and my words become non-distinct. My mom’s family is originally from Texas and when I catch myself doing this during a reading, I summon my inner Texan and slow down. By this, I don’t mean that I drawl my words, but I take my time with each word and make sure I see and say each one in turn. It’s actually quite hard to go too slow during a reading.

Practice beforehand

I spend months and perhaps even years with a manuscript before it’s published. Therefore I must know it inside and out. Right? Maybe, but that doesn’t mean I can read it well. Again, taking a lesson from those choir days, it doesn’t matter how well you think you know a story, practicing always helps. A rehearsal session also allows you time to experiment with varying your voice for different characters. If it works, great. If it doesn’t, just work on making sure you learn to read their dialogue as naturally as possible. Some readings enforce time limits, especially if you’re reading during the same session as others. Practice helps assure that your reading will fit. Make sure you practice going slow!

Read a complete piece

I don’t necessarily mean that you should read a novel from cover to cover or even a complete chapter if your chapters are long. However, your reading should have a hook, some development, and some kind of satisfying conclusion. Let your audience feel as though they’ve had a complete storytelling experience.

Lagniappe

This is a term from Southern Louisiana and it means “a little something extra.” Always give your audience some kind of lagniappe. A baker might give you a thirteenth doughnut when you order a dozen. When I give a reading, I try to do something a little extra and fun. The photo above is from WesterCon in Phoenix where I showed a rough cut of the book trailer for The Astronomer’s Crypt during my reading. At Bubonicon, later that year, I read from my new anthology Kepler’s Cowboys and invited fellow contributor Gene Mederos to read with me. He showed off some of the artwork he’d created inspired by the stories. I’ve done Halloween readings where I give out candy. I even did a space pirate reading where we sung sea chanties. A lagniappe doesn’t have to be big. It doesn’t even have to cost you anything. What it should do is let the audience know they’re special and appreciated.

Are you an author who has given readings? If you have additional tips, please feel free to share them in the comments below.

Understanding Time

Back in high school, I remember wondering what time actually is. I believe my interest really started by learning about Einstein’s theory of Special Relativity and realizing that clocks would measure time differently depending on how fast you’re going. It’s at that point that I consciously thought about the fact that clocks don’t measure something in the way you measure something with a ruler. Clocks are simply mechanical devices designed to move at a fixed rate. When I reached college and then graduate school, I learned about Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity in which time and space are all wrapped up in gravity.

While I was learning about General Relativity in graduate school, I was also learning about Lagrangian mechanics, which is basically a reformulation of Newton’s classical mechanics that endeavors to understand the motions of bodies by understanding the total energy in a system rather than the understanding the forces applied to a physical body. Newtonian mechanics requires that you know where and when a body exists in time and space to understand its behavior. Lagrangian mechanics doesn’t.

It’s with that background that I caught a fascinating episode of Science Friday on NPR the other day. In the episode, host Ira Flatow interviewed physicist Carlo Rovelli who makes a case that time might not even exist. You can listen to the interview at: https://www.sciencefriday.com/segments/a-case-for-why-time-may-just-not-exist/

In the interview, Rovelli discusses the idea that mechanical systems can be understood though their energy distributions and that time is not really a factor. The only place time, or change if you will, manifests is in the second law of thermodynamics, which quantifies how systems become increasingly disordered. He talks about relative time—how someone traveling near the speed of light will experience time differently than a person standing still. He also talks about how time near a black hole would virtually stop. One of the fascinating concepts he introduced is that as we move into space, we may need a new vocabulary of time, just as we developed a new definition of “up” when we discovered the world was a sphere. At that time, no one quite knew what “up” was. Was up over your head in Greece? If so, and you were on the other side of the planet, did that mean “up” was under your feet?

Perhaps the most mind-blowing thing Rovelli introduced in the interview was the idea that time and space may not “exist” as such, but simply be the way our brains interpret the action of gravitation on the energy fields that make up all existence.

There’s a lot of fodder in these ideas for a science fiction or fantasy writer. I certainly recommend giving the podcast a listen and I’ll likely be checking out Rovelli’s book, The Order of Time. Playing with the idea that time, space, and gravity are all interrelated led me to the Erdon-Quinn drive of my space pirate stories. One could certainly imagine a story where one finds a way to travel through time using these concepts. Of course, such travel may create ripples in the fabric of reality that would make the so-called butterfly effect look like simple child’s play to untangle.

Ray Bradbury, who played with the butterfly effect in his story “A Sound of Thunder” once told me a story of being at a carnival, when a performer named Mr. Electrico sat in an electric chair. When the switch was pulled, Mr. Electrico pointed a lightning rod at Ray Bradbury and said, “Live forever!” Pondering time and space in this way, I even begin to wonder if a person lives forever by existing at all.

I hope you’ll make time to travel to other realities with me in my books and stories. Learn more at http://www.davidleesummers.com

Bringing Characters to Life

A little over a week ago, at El Paso Comic Con, I had the opportunity to meet Jonathan Frakes, who not only starred in Star Trek: The Next Generation as Commander William Riker, but directed two of the films and several episodes of the series. I told him a little about the Star Trek: The Next Generation script my friend William Grother and I had submitted back in 1991, which had made it to the producer’s desk, but wasn’t actually produced. We shared some kind words. His commanding voice and intense blue-eyed gaze, which made him perfect for Riker, stuck with me into the coming week.

After El Paso Comic Con was over, I needed to write a new story for my book-in-progress, Firebrandt’s Legacy. The book is a combination of previously published stories and new material about Captain Ellison Firebrandt and his crew of space pirates aboard the good ship Legacy. My goal has been to create a set of stories that work together as a satisfying story arc. The new stories are there to bring the story arc together and then bring the overall story to a satisfying conclusion. I’m about two-thirds of the way through the process and hope to finish the book over the summer.

The story I needed to write required a character who could put the indefatigable Captain Firebrandt into a tough spot. Firebrandt’s a privateer and he’s mentioned several times that he answers to authorities on Earth. I decided the time had come to show readers who exactly Captain Firebrandt answered to. I saw this person as a tough admiral who manipulates people and ships like pieces on a chessboard, doing everything possible to keep Earth out of open conflict because, frankly, in this universe Earth would be seriously outmatched in an open conflict. Because I wanted this to be a memorable character, I wanted to think of aspects that would bring him to life for the reader. One of the tricks I sometimes use to do this is to imagine the actor I would put in that part if this was dramatized. Jonathan Frakes with his intense presence seemed just the kind of person I would cast as the person to put Captain Firebrandt in a tough place!

A writer can also reverse this trick and think of a character who has characteristics very different from a familiar actor or character and then visualize that person. Another time I needed an opponent for Captain Firebrandt and his crew, I wanted to create someone who was capable, but not exactly likable. I turned to Sir Patrick Stewart and his portrayal of Jean-Luc Picard. However, I didn’t want a Picard, I wanted an anti-Picard. The result was William Robert Stewart, a posturing, arrogant, loud-mouthed captain who is happy to let his feelings be known. Captain “Billy Bob” Stewart has appeared in two of my Firebrandt’s Legacy stories.

I hope to release the book Firebrandt’s Legacy later this year, but why wait? You can read the stories as I edit and write them by becoming a patron at my Patreon site. Just click the button below or at the right side of the screen. For just one dollar a month, you’ll get a brand new story, plus behind the scenes information about the stories. I’ve also given away a free ebook of The Solar Sea to patrons and I plan to give away the complete ebook of Firebrandt’s Legacy to my patrons as well. For that matter, if I get a few more patrons, I might be persuaded to send out signed print copies. What’s more, patrons get a chance to be mentioned in the book’s acknowledgements. You want more? I’m also working with a very talented group of voice actors to create a full-cast audio dramatization of the book. So, why wait? Sign aboard the Legacy today!

Bon Voyage, TESS

This past week, my daughter and I watched live as the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, or TESS, was launched into orbit. This satellite is the follow-up to NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope, which was designed to point to a specific region of space known to have many sun-like stars and get a sense for how many of them have exoplanets. As it turns out, the answer is many! The only problem is that Kepler’s region of interest didn’t include many nearby stars. TESS’s mission is to look at stars close to Earth and see which ones harbor planets. Here’s the video of the launch for those who missed it.

As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, the NEID Spectrograph on the WIYN Telescope at Kitt Peak National Observatory where I work will be supporting and following up on TESS observations. This launch is a major milestone in the overall search for exoplanets. I gather it will take about two months for TESS to reach its final orbit. During that time, cameras and instruments will be tested to make sure everything made it through launch with no problems.

The most amazing part of the launch for me was to see how fast TESS made it into orbit, really only a couple of minutes after launch itself. And yet, with current technology, even the nearest exoplanets are still out of feasible travel range for humans. Despite that, I still have hopes that we’ll find destinations that we, as a species, will feel driven to explore. Once we do, I hope we’ll find ways to make the trip happen. In fact, one of the technologies that might allow a voyage to nearby solar systems is scheduled for testing later this year. The Planetary Society’s LightSail 2 is scheduled to launch on a SpaceX Falcon Heavy this summer. I imagine what a voyage through the solar system might be like using such a craft in my novel The Solar Sea.

Of course this is part of the reason that Steve Howell from NASA and I felt compelled to compile the anthologies A Kepler’s Dozen and Kepler’s Cowboys. They allow us to envision what the worlds we’ve been discovering might be like. They allow us to imagine life in new ways, and even to imagine exciting possibilities for things we could find on worlds that don’t harbor life as we know it. Of course, reality is such that what we discover will no doubt go far beyond what we imagine!

So, once the TESS and NEID teams start finding worlds near the Earth that we can imagine, will Steve Howell and I put together another anthology? I suspect there’s a good chance we will. Whether or not we do, I encourage writers to keep an eye on the discoveries because there will be plenty of inspiration for some cool science fiction stories in the coming years.

Learn more about the Kepler Anthologies and The Solar Sea at:

The Coming of the King

Last week, I finished reading Nikolai Tolstoy’s novel The Coming of the King. Tolstoy draws from such diverse sources as The Mabinogion, Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Vita Merlini, Beowulf, and the Norse Eddas to tell a story of post-Arthurian Britain through the eye of Merlin. This Merlin isn’t the advisor of Arthur we’ve come to expect from works like T.H. White’s The Once and Future King, but rather a shaman living nearly a century after Arthur’s defeat at Camlan.

The book runs the gamut from action, to ribald humor, to surreal visions. I especially loved the fact that one of Merlin’s teachers is the Salmon of Lyn Liw. At times this is a dense and challenging read and I’m not sure I would have gotten as much out of it if I hadn’t read several of the stories of The Mabinogion plus some of the Norse Eddas. Still, I found this a compelling look through the eyes of a Celtic shaman and may have to give this another read in the future.

Tolstoy himself is something of an interesting figure. I gather he’s a distant cousin of Leo Tolstoy. He’s also the stepson of Patrick O’Brien, who wrote the outstanding Aubrey & Maturin series of naval epics set during the Napoleonic wars. Having grown up in Britain, Tolstoy developed an interest in Arthurian literature, and I especially enjoyed his non-fiction book, The Quest for Merlin. That book introduced me to Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Vita Merlini, which in turn inspired my poem “The Passage of Merlin” which was reprinted at Eye to the Telescope earlier this year.

When I first discovered Arthurian literature and started processing it, I had a vision of creating a work similar in scope to Tolstoy’s The Coming of the King. I envisioned telling the ultimate Arthurian tale. Of course, many far-more-noted authors have also done so, ranging from Mark Twain to John Steinbeck to the aforementioned T.H. White. Tolstoy sidestepped the trap of writing “yet another Arthurian fantasy” by writing about people who lived a generation or two after Arthur and were influenced by his legacy.

I’m often asked how an author can create fantasy that isn’t derivative of the epic fantasy of J.R.R. Tolkien or the sword and sorcery of Robert E. Howard. One answer is simply to read the classics. The ones Tolstoy drew from are good choices. Grimm’s fairy tales are also good choices. In that way, a writer can get to the roots of fantasy. From that basis, you can start adapting the themes and types of characters to situations and locations that mean something to you.

My first professional fantasy (and steampunk) sale was a story I was moved to write after reading Moby Dick and then Ray Bradbury’s accounts of writing the novel’s screenplay. I replaced sailing ships with airships and whales with dragons and wrote “The Slayers” which was published in Realms of Fantasy. You can learn about the reprinted edition at: http://www.davidleesummers.com/slayers.html.

As for Arthurian legends, I had a lot of notes and ideas and wrote some stories. I added vampires and my love of the movie Nosferatu and melded it into Dragon’s Fall: Rise of the Scarlet Order. You can learn more about the novel at: http://www.davidleesummers.com/dragons_fall.html

Of course, a lot of these old stories can be dense and a challenge to follow. One of the ways I dealt with that was by retelling the stories in my own words and finding the parts that were important to me and emphasizing them. I felt brave enough to record one of those retellings and put it up for sale several years ago. It’s my retelling of Culhwch and Olwen from The Maginogion.

I was really fortunate that the story also captured the imagination of a co-worker from Kitt Peak named Kevin Schramm, who also played accordion for an outstanding band called The Mollys. Kevin and Mollys lead singer Nancy McCallion were kind enough to record some music for my reading. You can find out more about the recording at: http://www.davidleesummers.com/cando.html. Just one word of caution if you go to buy the audiobook at Amazon, make sure to go to the Marketplace sellers and buy it from Hadrosaur Productions, and not the person who thinks they can get more than $600 for my recording. It would be nice if they shared some of their profits with me if they actually managed to sell the CD for that price!

Characters Are What They Eat

As the old saying goes, “you are what you eat.” My post’s title though refers less to nutrition than what you can reveal about a character through scenes set at mealtimes. I thought about this last week while revising the story “Jump Point Blockade” for my collection-in-progress, Firebrandt’s Legacy. During the story, Captain Firebrandt shares bobotie with Suki, the woman he’s building a relationship with. Bobotie is a South African dish that shares characteristics of a meatloaf, shepherd’s pie, and a curry. We decided to try our hand at making it this weekend. Here’s the result.

We picked a recipe from a South African site based on the author’s family recipe. If you want to try your hand at bobotie, here’s the recipe we used: http://www.getaway.co.za/food/recipes-food/traditional-south-african-bobotie-recipe/.

Part of the reason for the choice is that this version didn’t include nuts at cook time, since our daughters are nut-allergic. Different recipes call for different types of nuts. We went with cashews to serve with our version, but almonds and pine nuts also seem to be common choices. We also used a homemade apple and pear chutney in the mix. Finally, just a note that the recipe specifies “sultanas” over raisins. It turns out that most raisins sold in the United States are, in fact, sultana raisins.

Firebrandt is South African because I created him during the time apartheid was being dismantled in South Africa. He came from a culture where his ancestors had been part of an oppressive regime and he wanted no part of belonging to one himself. What’s more South Africa is one of the few countries to have developed nuclear weapons, but voluntarily destroyed them. I see the elimination of nuclear weapons as one of the necessary paths forward for the human race. In my head, Firebrandt has always spoken with a South African accent and having him share bobotie with a friend was a way to show that on the page.

Scenes including mealtimes not only reveal what people eat, but their accepted manners while eating. How strongly they adhere to meal customs can tell you much about a character, no matter what those customs are. If someone cares a lot about protocol, they might adhere strongly to custom. Other characters might care more about conversation. Some characters might reveal themselves to be completely uncouth at the dinner table. How hosts react to good and bad manners can also be revealing.

One of the challenges in Firebrandt’s Legacy is that I wrote many of the chapters as stand-alone short stories. It could be that when I’m finished collecting the stories and read them as a whole, I might find that I’ve overused the number of times my characters have shared meals. If that’s the case, I’ll need to cut a few of them and share only those that are the most revealing and most interesting.

I invite you to share some adventures, and perhaps a few meals, with the crew of the pirate ship Legacy. I’m posting a new chapter each month. So far, most of the chapters have been revisions of stories that have appeared far and wide in the small press and aren’t always easy to find. I’m nearing a point where most of the stories will be new and unpublished. You can read these stories for just a dollar a month. Of course, this helps me fund other projects as well, such as my recent publication of The Solar Sea. This leads to surprise bonus rewards. I just gave all my wonderful patrons a free ebook copy of the new novel. (If you join my Patreon page now, you can still pick up a copy!) Click the button below to read the first chapter for free and learn how to support this fun project.