Guest Post: Gender Swapping Characters

Today, I’d like to welcome author Deby Fredericks to my blog. I’ve had the honor of editing her novels The Grimhold Wolf and Seven Exalted Orders. I enjoy her writing and she has a new book out called The Tower in the Mist. In it, she presents a group of non-traditional warriors. Presenting characters in non-traditional gender roles is something I have done as well, and I thought it would be interesting to hear Deby’s take on this subject. Without further ado, I’ll turn it over to Deby.


When I began writing The Tower in the Mist, I did not plan to include a group of Amazonian warrior-women. A woman mage had been captured by warriors who served an evil wizard. But the more I worked on that setting, in the Land of Skaythe, the more I realized that the minions of an evil wizard were also going to be evil. And what will a group of evil men do after capturing a female prisoner?

I did not like where this was leading me.

As an author, each one of us has to choose what “content” we include. How much bloodshed, how much moralizing, whatever. We all balance what our audience is looking for against what we are comfortable writing. Every story is personal to its author. No one can tell us that we “have to” put in anything we don’t want to.

Personally, I did not want to put myself into the mind of a woman being raped as violently as these evil warriors would do. But even more than that, I believe that we as a society have a real problem with violence against women. A big part of the problem is how media, including literary arts, seem so okay with that violence. For most writers, the rape of a woman prisoner would be no big deal. It shows how bad those guys are, and anyway, the audience loves sex. Even the most disgusting, ugly sex there is. Writers “have to” give them what they want.

No. We don’t. Call me squeamish if you want. The Tower in the Mist is still my story. Go get your sick thrill on someone else’s pages.

ANYWAY! I didn’t like where my story was going. As the author, I can change whatever I need to, in order for the rape not to happen. What I did was to swap everyone’s gender. Instead of a woman captured by men, a man was captured by women.

Immediately, the characters sprang to life. Skaythe is a land of dark sorcery, where might makes right and mages rule because of their mystic power. The prisoner, Keilos, had dedicated himself to non-violence. He was defying every expectation of masculine behavior. That’s much more interesting than rape. Meanwhile, the warriors, who had been very cardboard characters, became this group of misfits who were just trying to survive an evil system that used them as cannon-fodder. Their leader, Zathi, was a tough warrior who had fought many battles, both physical and political, to regain control over her own life. Again, much more interesting than it had been before.

I would not advocate that every author should swap the genders of their characters. I didn’t do it to make people laugh, or solely to make a political point. The swap was what my story needed to become amazing. And it worked! The Tower in the Mist is a much richer and more poignant tale because of it.


The Tower in the Mist

Zathi’s job is to capture renegade mages, but Keilos isn’t like any other mage she’s dealt with. Her drive to bring him in only leads them deeper into a cursed forest. Together, warrior and mage will face deadly beasts and grapple with decisions that compromise every principle. Until they stumble upon a place of ancient, forgotten magic. Zathi must choose — allow Keilos to claim it, or kill him once and for all.

Pre-order Links

Kindle format: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B07QL476BJ

Other formats: https://books2read.com/u/3nK1Mo


Deby Fredericks has been a writer all her life, but thought of it as just a fun hobby until the late 1990s. She made her first sale, a children’s poem, in 2000. 

Fredericks has six fantasy novels out through two small presses. The latest is The Grimhold Wolf, released by Sky Warrior in 2015. Her children’s stories and poems have appeared in magazines such as Boys’ Life, Babybug, Ladybug, and a few anthologies. In the past, she served as Regional Advisor for the Inland Northwest Region of the Society of  Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, International  (SCBWI).

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Owl Riders in the Sky

While driving up to Kitt Peak National Observatory late on Saturday night, Johnny Cash’s rendition of the great Stan Jones song, “(Ghost) Riders in the Sky” cycled on my mp3 player. To my mind, the song is a great example of a weird western expressed in music. It tells the story of an old cowhand who rides out on a dark and dusty day and encounters the devil’s own herd being chased by a phantom cowboys.

As I listened, I found myself substituting some images from my own Clockwork Legion novels. In fact, the title of the fourth novel in the series, Owl Riders, is kind of an homage to the spooky feelings evoked by the “Ghost Riders.” Different cultures in the southwest often see the appearance of owls as bad omens. As portrayed in Rudolfo Anaya’s novel Bless Me Ultima, owls are sometimes seen as the familiars of witches. In my novel, the owls themselves are ornithopters, which are craft that fly by flapping their wings. The owl riders of the title are the pilots of these craft. It struck me that with a few tweaks, the song goes from being more of a horror-flavored weird western to more of a science fictional weird western or even a steampunk song.

I don’t feel I can share the full song as I envisioned it since that would include some verbatim lyrics from the original. While it’s part of a discussion of the song and could arguably be “fair use,” quoting complete lines would be a substantial part of the song itself, like quoting an entire chapter from a novel. It’s not my intention to cut into sales of the song. In fact, if you don’t already own a copy of the song, I strongly recommend buying a legal download or a CD of one of the many fine versions. What’s more the lyrics are easily available on the web. Still, I thought it would be fun to describe the song in my revised version and share a few of the altered lyrics.

In the original song, a cowpoke rides out on a stormy day. In my version one of the owl riders is named Billy McCarty and I imagine that he’s a version of Billy the Kid who was diverted off the path to become the infamous outlaw and becomes a hero instead. I could imagine that the cowpoke in my version is one of Billy’s associates who takes shelter to get some rest. He looks up in the sky, “When all at once a parliament of steel-eyed owls he saw.”

As they travel through the clouds, he gets a good look: “Exhaust pipes breathing fire and their talons made of steel. Their beaks were black and shiny and their hot wake he could feel.” Our cowhand shudders as he hears his old friend Billy shout out, “owl riders in the sky!”

Billy’s old friend then sees the determined looks on the riders’ faces. Unlike the original song, these are not desperate men who never hope to reach the end of their quest. These are men and women on the quest for justice. It’s possible it will never end, but the next bad guy they catch makes the world just a little better. It’s at this point that Billy turns to his old companion and warns him to change his ways, otherwise the owl riders will come or him next.

Songs rarely tell a whole story. Like poems, they just present a moment in time or an image. This will go in my mental file as an image that might be part of a story. It may not be used directly, but might inspire something down the road. I hope you’ve enjoyed this peak into how I get my ideas. If you want to learn more about the owl riders and how they came to be, read the novel Owl Riders. You can read the first chapter and find places to buy the novel at: http://www.davidleesummers.com/owl_riders.html.

Lasers on Telescopes

For me, the phrase “lasers on telescopes” brings to mind super villains capturing top secret astronomical facilities in order to execute a nefarious plan. I think of Mr. Freeze capturing Gotham Observatory to build a giant freeze ray in the movie Batman and Robin. Perhaps a funnier and better example is Chairface Chippendale using a laser in a telescope to deface the moon with his name in the TV series The Tick.

Laser measuring tool (on yellow arm between black mirror covers) over the Mayall primary mirror.

In fact, lasers are used on telescopes. Perhaps the best known real-world examples are telescopes that use laser guide stars. This is a technique where astronomers fire a laser mounted on the telescope into the sky. The laser light is scattered by the atmosphere, but optics in the telescope correct that light back into the proper size beam and also correct the stars seen at the same time. We had a system like that at the 2.1-meter telescope at Kitt Peak run by CalTech. There was also a system like that at the 3.5-meter telescope at New Mexico’s Apache Point Observatory.

Now, these lasers are not ones that are likely to be co-opted for nefarious purposes by super villains. Lasers used for guide stars just aren’t that powerful. That said, they can’t be used with impunity. The artificial guide star laser at Kitt Peak was visible in the ultraviolet band and would interfere with optical telescopes also observing in that band. What’s more, I’ve been told Apache Point Observatory had to clear laser firings with the Air Force, who had a base nearby. The observatory’s laser wasn’t likely to shoot down planes, but we could imagine tragic results if a pilot happened to fly through a laser’s line of sight only to be blinded.

This past week, while working at the Mayall 4-meter telescope, we were also using a laser. In this case, it wasn’t fired at the sky, but the laser was mounted on the telescope’s mirror cell and fired at different surfaces on the telescope to get precise measurements. Now that the refit for DESI is nearing completion, the engineers need to make sure everything went back together as it was designed. They need to make sure all the new parts are placed in just the right place. If not, this is the time to make adjustments. Measurements of telescopes are important because they help to assure that astronomers can focus the telescope properly. Precise measurements are also critical to determine the proper weight distribution of the telescope, which in turn helps it track the sky precisely.

As it turns out, I also spent part of this past week working on an adaptive optics system a little like those laser systems I mentioned. However, the WIYN Tip-Tilt Module doesn’t actually use a laser. Instead, it takes precision measurements of an actual star and uses optics within the instrument to bring that star as close as possible to a precise point. I’ve seen it used to deliver incredible image quality with stars only 0.3 arcsecs across. To put that in perspective, star images with WIYN are typically more like 0.8 arcsec across. The size difference is the result of atmospheric blurring.

This all echoes something I’ve been saying in the past few blog posts. If something isn’t quite right, there are ways to fix it, even when its a multi-million dollar scientific project. By comparison, books are much easier to fix. It’s why beta readers and editors are so important to the writing process. They help us see places where we didn’t express ourselves clearly, made something work in an artificial way, or simply used the wrong word. It’s part of why reviews are so important. Reviews help customers, but they also help writers because they tell them what worked and didn’t work.

Over the years, reviews helped me refine my craft until I could write books like Owl Riders and Firebrandt’s Legacy. And yes, reviews are helping me shape the 25th anniversary edition of The Pirates of Sufiro, which I’m working on right now. I hope you’ll join me on a journey to one of the worlds I’ve created and, if you do, please leave a review to let me and others know what you thought. The titles in this paragraph are links where you can get more information about the books.

The Hands of Fate

While reading the book of plays, Uncanny Encounters – Live! by Paul McComas and Stephen D. Sullivan a few weeks ago, I was reminded that Sullivan had written a novelization of the movie Manos: The Hands of Fate. The movie has been declared by people such as the writers of Mystery Science Theater 3000 and Elvira as the worst movie ever made. The movie fascinates me personally because it opens on El Paso’s Transmountain Highway and much of it is set in the familiar desert between El Paso and Las Cruces. It is a terrible movie and I’ve only survived my viewings by laughing along with hosts such as those I mentioned. So, I was very curious what Sullivan did with a novelization of such a movie.

I put the book on my Christmas list and lo and behold it arrived and I devoured it between Christmas and New Years. The novel takes a humorous, snarky tone and could really be seen as a companion to the Mystery Science Theater 3000 version. It’s very self aware and has fun with the movie’s problems. That said, the book made me aware that Sullivan had not written just one novelization, but two. The other, Manos: Talons of Fate, attempts to turn the campy film into a serious horror novel. I downloaded it to my Kindle, and I must say, Sullivan does a fine job of using the movie as a basis for a chilling, Lovecraftian tale.

According to the book Huh? by Hal C.F. Astell, Manos: The Hands of Fate was the result of a bet made in a coffee shop between fertilizer salesman and insurance agent Harold P. Warren and Stirling Silliphant, a writer for the TV series Route 66. Warren apparently played a bus driver in the series and he bet Silliphant that anyone could make a movie and see it released. In fact, he started plotting the movie on the spot. No doubt that very cynicism that just anyone could make a movie is part of why people are happy to have seen it turn out so bad. However, despite that issue, Harold Warren had the tenacity to see the project through and complete it, something many would-be writers never manage.

What fascinates me about Sullivan’s approach in this novel is that he doesn’t alter the plot very much at all. Instead, he delves deeper into the characters’ heads and lets us understand why they are doing what they are doing. He gives the scenes more detail and depth while letting them play out very much like they did on screen. He does add a few things that don’t happen on screen, but he keeps that to a minimum. The result is a wonderful demonstration of the thin line that exists between a story that works well and one that doesn’t work at all.

Sullivan’s exercise in writing two novelizations of Manos: The Hands of Fate also interests me because it’s not unlike what I’m currently doing at my Patreon site. I’m presenting chapters of my novel The Pirates of Sufiro as they appeared in the most recent print version and giving some brief analysis of what worked and didn’t work, then within a couple of weeks, I’m releasing an edited chapter. While I certainly hope the most recent edition of The Pirates of Sufiro doesn’t descend to the level of the movie Manos: The Hands of Fate, it was my first novel and I don’t feel I did as good a job describing characters and situations as I could have. I also don’t feel like all the story’s “beats” hit where they needed to.

My goal with Pirates is much the same as Stephen Sullivan’s goal with his novel. I want to improve Pirates, but I don’t want to change it so far that it become unrecognizable. If someone picks up a different edition of one of the sequels, I still want them to be able to read with confidence that the same major events transpired in all editions of the novel. You can support me in this experiment at: http://www.patreon.com/davidleesummers. Please drop by and browse the posts. While many posts are reserved for patrons, several are free so you can get a sense of the work I’m doing. I hope you like what you see.

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.

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