First Responder Training

This past week at Kitt Peak National Observatory, I renewed my first responder certification. As I mentioned in my Saturday blog post, observatories are in remote locations and bad things do happen. I’ve been fortunate enough that I haven’t had to deal with much in the way of criminal activity at an observatory. I’m often asked if I have ever seen aliens at the observatory. My answer to that is that the law enforcement agency I’ve interacted most with at the observatory is the U.S. Border Patrol.

That said, things can be bad enough without people engaged in illegal activities. I have had to treat an astronomer who was stung by a scorpion. I also know of a time a person on the mountain suffered a heart attack, though did not go into cardiac arrest. As I approach the age my father suffered a fatal heart attack, I find myself grateful that many of my co-workers know CPR and have been trained in the use of Automated Electronic Defibrillators.

Even without worrying about heart conditions, I have also had more than my share of accidents. About a month before my oldest daughter was born, I was working on a telescope when I accidentally knocked a 15-pound weight off a ladder and it fell right into my jaw, puncturing my lower lip. Luckily I didn’t lose any teeth. More recently, an elevator became stuck. We were able to open the door and I jumped to the floor below to go find a ladder to get my fellow passengers out. I managed to sprain my knee in the process.

At Kitt Peak National Observatory, once we dial 911, it will take 45 minutes for the closest ambulance to make it to the observatory summit. Many observatories are even further from emergency response. Having a staff where many people have first responder training means we can help each other and help visitors during emergencies.

I strongly encourage you to get first responder training if it’s at all available. I have to admit, I don’t always remember all the lessons from the videos and practice sessions, but the training does give me the confidence to follow instructions from a 911 dispatcher when I call. I’ve also found that in those rare emergency situations, I’m surprised by how much I do remember.

Another aspect of first responder trainer that’s important to me is that it gives me experience I can draw on as a writer. Aspects of both Kitt Peak’s remote location and the training I’ve received as a first responder have gone into such novels as The Pirates of Sufiro. The novel is currently out of print, but I’m about to launch into a full rewrite in preparation of a fourth edition at my Patreon site. My Patreon site also helps to fund this blog and I currently have an initiative to raise enough money to upgrade this to an ad-free site. Drop over to my Patreon site and read two free stories of my new collection Firebrandt’s Legacy. If you sign on, you can read the rest of the collection for free, plus you can see how The Pirates of Sufiro develops in its new edition. I bet you’ll even see some examples of how I put my first responder training to use in my fiction writing. My Patreon site is at: http://www.patreon.com/davidleesummers.

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Chargers

No, this isn’t a post about a football team that started in Los Angeles, moved to San Diego, then returned to Los Angeles. This past week, I operated the WIYN telescope at Kitt Peak National Observatory. About halfway through the week, the charger circuit on the telescope failed. The WIYN is a telescope with a 3.5-meter primary mirror, making it the second largest aperture optical telescope at the observatory. This large telescope needs to track the sky as smoothly as possible to get the precise measurements we make of astronomical objects. Because of that, the motors don’t actually work off a power cord plugged into the wall that could be subject to brown outs or power spikes. Instead, we have a charger circuit that charges up a set of small batteries. The telescope drives actually are powered by the batteries, shown in the photo to the left.

Although I have some experience with electronics, I’m not actually an electrical engineer. When failures like this occur, my job is less to make a repair, but to see if I can find a way to limp along for the rest of the night and continue to take data in spite of the trouble. However, the circuit is so fundamental to the telescope’s operation and the problem bad enough that I couldn’t even limp along. We had to close up and wait for more expert help in the daytime.

Fortunately, our expert electronics crew was able to repair the charger circuit in less than a day, so we were back on sky and taking spectra of galaxy clusters the next night. What has always amazed me about the charger circuit on the WIYN telescope is that a bank of relatively small batteries can move a 3.5-meter telescope. Those batteries need to move the telescope in three axes. The obvious axes are altitude and azimuth. As WIYN tracks the sky, images rotate in the field of view, so there’s also a rotator that keeps north up in the images.

The charger system strikes me as a metaphor for my approach to seeking inspiration for my writing. The charger system takes current from the wall in whatever form it exists, uses it to charge batteries, which change the form of the current to produce good telescope motion. I take inspiration from my work in astronomy, from the books I read, the movies I see, and my time interacting with friends and family, allow myself to process that through my brain and turn that into the stories and novels I write.

I have taken variable star data with telescopes that use wind-up clock drives and that has helped to inspire and inform clockwork gadgets in my steampunk stories. I once helped an astronomer to take one of the deepest images of the center of our galaxy in the infrared, which helped me to imagine a voyage to the center of the galaxy in my Space Pirates’ Legacy novels. Working late nights on a lonely mountain top in meandering buildings informs my horror. If you’re a writer, I’d love to hear about some things that have inspired your writing in the comments below.

Explore the worlds I’ve created at http://www.davidleesummers.com

Evolution of the Lightning Wolf

As a writer, one of the things I most appreciate is my family’s support. My family enjoys going to science fiction and steampunk conventions and is willing to help me out. They’re there to help me through the inevitable bad review and cheer me on when I get a good review. They enjoy many of the same shows I like to watch for research and inspiration. They’re also extremely creative in their own right. My youngest daughter, in particular, likes to create things inspired by my writing as well as books and movies I like. A couple of years ago, she created this interpretation of Larissa Crimson’s lightning wolf from my Clockwork Legion novels.

In the novel Lightning Wolves, the army attempts to recruit Professor Maravilla to help build more effective war machines to help repel the Russians, who have invaded America. The professor, however, has had enough of war machines and doesn’t want to go. Larissa, a bounty hunter who has apprenticed herself to the professor, agrees to go in his place.

Like most real-world inventions, the lightning wolf is a hodgepodge of things Larissa had on hand at Fort Bliss in the novel. She adds the engine from an ornithopter to power a safety bicycle, which holds one of the army’s lightning guns between the handlebars. In effect it’s an armed, steam-powered moped. In the novel, few people take this frail-looking contraption seriously until they see it in action and see the damage it can cause. It ultimately proves itself an effective weapon against much larger machines.

She returns to Professor Maravilla and the two join forces against common foes in the last act of Lightning Wolves. In many ways, Larissa and Maravilla are a family, even if they aren’t related by blood. Their relationship is fraught and sometimes tense. People on the outside don’t always understand it, but when one is in trouble, the other will be there to help out. In essence, my family is not just there to provide moral support, but they do provide the experience that helps me build effective characters and relationships on the pages of my books. As writers, we should always keep a lookout for those things around that we can use on the page.

Like most inventors, Larissa is not content with what she built. As the series proceeds, she tinkers, improves, and takes the lightning wolf to new levels. We see the upgraded version both in my novel Owl Riders and in my short story “Fountains of Blood” in the anthology Straight Outta Tombstone, which is coming out in a mass market paperback edition this fall.

If you would like to meet the family who created the lightning wolf and see this invention grow, change, and evolve, I invite you to give the Clockwork Legion series a try. You can learn about the books at: http://www.davidleesummers.com/books.html#clockwork_legion

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.

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!