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!

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The Earliest Sunsets

With winter solstice just a little over two weeks away, I have long working nights at Kitt Peak National Observatory. In fact, this week we’re having the earliest sunsets of the year, which means rushed dinners before heading out to observe for the night. The nights will continue to get a little longer through the solstice itself, but next week, the sunsets will start being a little later. I always consider that a big milestone. Not only do I get a little more time for dinner, but it tells me the holidays are just around the corner.

So far, this week has involved imaging with the One-Degree Imager at the WIYN telescope, so we’ve been taking a lot of long exposures of distant objects. This has allowed me time to work on my final read-through of the current draft of The Astronomer’s Crypt. I hope to return the novel to my editor this weekend if all goes well.

The Astronomer’s Crypt is told from the perspective of a telescope operator like me, who works at night alongside visiting astronomers from all around the country. However, I do note in the novel that observatories require a lot of support from people who work during the day. As it turns out, there’s a great video which looks at Mike Hawes, the daytime facilities supervisor here at Kitt Peak and the great job he does:

The observatory in The Astronomer’s Crypt is smaller than Kitt Peak, as such the staff is a bit smaller. In the novel, the character Jerome Torres does for the fictional Carson Peak Observatory some of the job Mike does for Kitt Peak, but he also does some of the job my boss, Dick Joyce does.

One of the challenges of a novel like The Astronomer’s Crypt which is based on my career in a selective and competitive profession such as astronomy is to create characters who are not exact analogs of people I know. I want to highlight what makes an observatory a great place to work, and depict professional people like Mike Hawes, but I also want to accurately portray some of the more, shall we say challenging and colorful personality types I’ve worked with as well.

I start by thinking about a person and their circumstances. The character Jerome Torres is an Apache who worked his way through college. He’s a serious guy who appreciates his heritage, but also finds science fascinating. When you read the book, I hope you won’t read about Jerome Torres and think he’s just Mike Hawes rewritten. Instead, I hope you’ll believe that he’s a different guy believably doing a similar job with his own style.

By the same token, you’ll meet some characters who feel superior to others, have vices, and succumb to temptations. None of these people are based on specific people I know. That said, I have known people over the years who have those personality traits. More than a few of them have also worked in astronomy.

In the dedication to It, Stephen King writes, “Kids, fiction is the truth inside the lie…” In The Astronomer’s Crypt I hope I have told a thrilling lie while at the same time telling the truth about a field I love.