A Puzzling Sunday

When I was a kid, I asked my parents for a Star Trek puzzle I saw in the toy store. I think the image was taken from one of the Gold Key comic book covers. I don’t remember how many pieces it was, but it wasn’t an “easy” puzzle because a lot of the pieces were black with stars. Even as a kid, I was obsessive enough that I stuck with it until it was finished.

From that point on, every time a distant relative or family friend asked what kind of gift they should give me, my parents would say jigsaw puzzles. As a parent myself, I can see why. They often have nice pictures and they’re relatively inexpensive, so it doesn’t feel like you’re imposing on those relatives asking for suggestions. The problem is, after doing that first jigsaw puzzle, even though I stuck with it and completed it, I discovered that I didn’t especially like doing it. What’s more, many later puzzles I received had pictures I didn’t even like that much. Oh, they were often pretty enough, but I’d rather see a mountain valley than put together a puzzle with a photo of one.

My wife, though, loves puzzles. She does tell people that she wants puzzles with photos or illustrations she likes, but she is very good with any jigsaw puzzle. Even without looking at the box lid, I’ve seen her pull out random pieces and start putting them together and I’ve seen her put 500-piece puzzles together in under two hours. My daughters have also inherited some of this puzzle skill. So, when our local comic shop started having puzzle tournaments, I suggested to my wife that she should enter. Up until a week ago, she competed in four tournaments with one of my daughters and a friend or two on the team and they’ve won all four. So, it surprised me this past weekend when my wife asked me to join them for the puzzle tournament.

The way these tournaments work is that every team is given the same puzzle. The team gets two hours to work on the puzzle. The first team to complete the puzzle wins. If no one completes it, the team with the largest number of assembled pieces wins. We were given a 1000-piece puzzle featuring an illustration based on John Carpenter’s The Thing. The illustration was largely shades of red and gray. On the team with me were my wife, my youngest daughter and a friend of my daughter’s from school.

Although I’m not altogether a fan of assembling jigsaw puzzles, I’m not bad at them. I’m a sufficiently old-school astronomer that I had to become really good at pattern matching to identify star fields in a telescope eyepiece or on a computer monitor. That old Star Trek puzzle way back probably helped me hone that skill. As an editor, I look for misspelled words and bad grammar. I can see how things fit together from seemingly random patterns. I went along to the tournament for the sake of family together time.

At the end of two hours, we had 261 pieces assembled, a little over a quarter of the puzzle and we were the tournament winners. Our prize—another puzzle. This one was a Scooby-Doo puzzle, that looked a little more to our taste. My wife is now five-for-five at the local comic shop’s puzzle tournaments. She plans to return for at least a couple of more rounds and will compete in the final round at the end of the year. Whether I go back and compete again will depend on how the tournament days line up with my schedule.

This was probably the most fun I had working on a jigsaw puzzle and from what I saw, all the teams had fun. I think for me, the most fun part was spending time and collaborating with my family. I did come away realizing that the obsessive part of me that sees a puzzle through to completion (or until a time limit) is a necessary part to me being a writer. When I start a story, I need to see it through until it’s finished. Stories are not unlike jigsaw puzzles for me in that they often start with flashes of scenes and moments of characters doing something and I really want to see how they all fit together. I think the reason they satisfy me more than puzzles is because I’m the one who created the picture that appears when it’s all finished.

Another fun thing that happened on Sunday is that author Stephanie Kato interviewed me at her blog. Click here to read that interview and learn a little more about me.

One Day Older…

At the very end of September in 1980, I had just started my freshman year of high school. I remember waking up to a voice calling out. I followed the voice from my bedroom to the living room, where I found my dad on the couch, calling for my mom, who was sound asleep. He told me he thought he was having a heart attack. I ran in and woke my mom who called the ambulance. While waiting for the ambulance, I called my brothers and asked them to meet us at the hospital. I don’t remember much of what happened next. I just remember being in a hospital waiting room when the doctor came in and talked to us. My dad hadn’t lived to see another sunrise.

As of this morning, I’m one day older than my dad ever was. I find myself thinking of all the things he was and all the things he did. He was a general foreman for the Santa Fe railroad, a lifelong Boy Scout leader, a talented painter, and a model railroad hobbyist who made sure the toy trains were as accurate as he could make them. He was a Marine at the end of World War II, a church elder, and a Mason. From him, I gained a love of history, nature, genealogy, and so much more. Now that I’m one day older than he ever was, I find myself wondering what he would think of the man I became.

This last year during the DESI installation at Kitt Peak National Observatory, I’ve been spending a lot of time wearing a hard hat at work. My dad almost always wore his hard hat at work. While it’s a superficial comparison, the image of him in his hard hat is indelibly burned into my memory. I know he would find the observatory fascinating and would love to see behind the scenes of everything we do, just as he enjoyed giving behind-the-scenes tours of the Santa Fe shops in San Bernardino, California. I suspect he’d be mystified by my love of science fiction but interested in how I play with “what if” questions in my alternate history. I know my dad would be proud of my daughters and interested in the things they’ve accomplished.

The date of my dad’s death has hung over me like a specter these last four decades. The rational part of my mind has known that barring accidents, there’s no particular reason I wouldn’t outlive my dad. Then again, doctors talking genetics have a way of keeping his early demise closer to the forefront of my mind than I would like. I’ve often felt the urge to accomplish as much as I can before this date, to assure that if I died young, I would have lived as full a life as possible. I’m glad I’ve made it to this point and I’m glad I have more life to live to share with my friends and loved ones. I know life is finite and I have no idea how much longer I have. What I do know is that the rest of my life is an open book and I plan to fill the pages with as much fun, action, and wonder as I possibly can.

Visiting Marceline

My family’s story has been an important inspiration for my novels. My first novel, The Pirates of Sufiro, was a science fiction tale inspired by my mom’s family of Texas and New Mexico pioneers. Learning more about their history led me to write more directly about the wild west in my Clockwork Legion steampunk novels.

When people learn about my interest in genealogy, they often ask me if I’ve taken on of the many DNA tests that are currently on the market. While I think that would be interesting and it’s something I’d like to do, it’s a fairly low priority. Some of that is because of I know the limitations of DNA testing. For example, some genes are passed along patriarchal lines and others are only passed along matriarchal lines. What’s more, genetic markers are based on statistical samples. For example, 80% of Scottish people may show a given genetic marker while 70% of people from Africa may have another genetic marker. So these tests are based on statistical samples rather than absolute measurements. Most of all, DNA doesn’t tell me much, if anything, about the day-to-day lives of my ancestors, which is the stuff that makes good story fodder.

In my recent travels, I paid a visit to Marceline, Missouri. The town is probably most famous as the hometown of Walt Disney. However, I went to pay my respects to my great great grandfather, Paul Teter. I knew he was a veteran of the Civil War and I also knew he was Marceline’s first Justice of the Peace. He was also the father of my great grandmother Montana and her sister Arizona, who I wrote about two years ago. While in Marceline, I paid a visit to the Carnegie Library, which has a depository of newspaper articles and genealogy resources. It proved to be a real treasure trove.

The Carnegie Library’s collection is fabulous. They’ve indexed their newspaper collections, which makes searching them easy. I soon found stories about weddings my great great grandfather officiated over, often having the families over at his house. I learned about his career as a “police judge.” Today, most jurisdictions would refer to the position as a “magistrate judge.” I also found two items of note in the “City and Vicinity” column of the Marceline Mirror dated February 9, 1906. The third paragraph reports that “Mrs. Paul Teter fell and sustained a sprained ankle that disabled her for many days.” A sad bit of news indeed. Two paragraphs below that, we learn, “Elias Disney, of Chicago, is in the city with the expectation of locating on a farm near this place.” The farm is the one Walt Disney grew up on and where he lay under the family’s famous dreaming tree. A DNA test wouldn’t have given me that little connection and I never would have seen the town that is said to have inspired Main Street at the Disney parks.

While searching through the genealogy records at the Carnegie Library in Marceline, I also came across a memory shared by Arizona Teter’s son. He noted that Paul Teter owned a book and stationary store located on the street above. One of his most famous customers was young Walt Disney who would choose a book and sit reading in the window seat until the store closed. Arizona remembered that his favorite book was Robinson Crusoe. There’s something pretty amazing to learn that my great great grandparents contributed to Walt Disney’s love of adventure fiction. I don’t know quite where this research will lead me, but I’m sure it will inspire more stories in the future.

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

The Horror of Time Management

My daughter recently wrapped up another semester’s midterms in college, which presented her with a nearly overwhelming set of projects and exams. On top of that, she has a job with its own set of responsibilities. At the same time, I’ve been juggling quite a few projects as well. I’m drafting a novel, shepherding an anthology through its final phases of publication, promoting those books that are already out. Of course, I also have the “day” job of operating telescopes. Included in my job duties is oversight of the telescope operation manuals, which keeps me busy by itself. Given our different time management challenges, we had a good discussion about the subject and how to move forward without feeling overwhelmed.

The photo shows me with both of my daughters a couple of years ago at Gator Chateu in Jennings, Louisiana. The picture is kind of a metaphor. If you think of projects as alligators, they’re easy to handle and kind of fun when they’re small. The challenge is when they get big and you have several of them at once!

I’ve been seeing several articles in recent months that suggest multitasking is counterproductive. I can believe it. To extend my alligator metaphor, it’s like trying to go up against all the gators by yourself at once. You’re more likely to get eaten than get something useful done with the gators. Not multitasking sounds great until you’re confronted with the reality of several big projects and looming deadlines.

The first thing to realize is that it’s actually rare for all deadlines to fall at the exact same time. Even when deadlines do occur at the same time, there’s nothing saying you can’t finish one project early if possible. The first thing I like to do when confronted with several looming projects is figure out which things need to be done first. Also, some projects require more complete attention from me while others require me to contact a person and then wait for a response. This part is like getting your alligators into separate enclosures so you can deal with them one at a time.

To step back a little and make this more concrete for writers, this is why I think it’s invaluable for a writer to have good, regular writing habits. For me, it’s much easier to write productively in a small block of time if I have been writing routinely every day. If I take a long break from my writing, that’s when anxiety starts to build regarding what I’m going to write about. That’s when I spend long periods of time staring at the computer trying to figure out what words I’m going to be using. If I’m writing regularly, I can look at my outline, see the scene I want to write, then sit down and get it done in the block I have available. If you write by the seat of your pants, you won’t be looking at an outline, but you might think about the last scene you wrote and decide where you’re going.

Editing and book promotion can both involve some amount of writing emails or making phone calls and then waiting for responses. A daily routine that often works well for me is to wake up, check my email and see if there’s anything I need to deal with right away. I take care of what I need to, and then set aside those tasks that either don’t require an instant response or can’t be finished instantly. At that point, I turn off my email program and turn off the ringer on my phone. I write to the goal I have set myself. That goal varies depending on the project, but it’s often a thousand or two thousand words. Once that goal is done, I turn the phone back on and restart the email program, check for messages and move on to longer term editorial work.

Now, you’ll notice, I’ve not addressed the observatory job. One thing I like about my job is that while I work long hours at the telescope, I only work for about six or seven nights every two weeks. So, all my work taking data at the telescope and drafting manuals happens at the observatory and is only occasionally done at home when there’s a pressing deadline or a safety issue that needs to be dealt with right away. This kind of schedule isn’t for everyone, which means you need to adapt your schedule to your routine. It may mean smaller blocks of time every day for every job you do, or it may mean you do some jobs on some days and other jobs on other days.

After awhile, it starts to look like multitasking, but really I try hard to focus on one job at a time as much as possible.

I also didn’t mention family time in the equation, but for me, that’s perhaps the most important time of all and the least negotiable. It’s also probably a better reason for showing a photo with me and my daughters than a silly alligator analogy. When I’m at home, I typically stop work at 6pm to be available to my wife and daughters as they need. There are exceptions. Among other things, sometimes my younger daughter has after school activities or homework that take her attention for a while. Sometimes she works on that while I work on a project. When I’m at the observatory, I’m away from home, but I make time to Skype with my family every day and I’m available to take calls as needed.

So, to sum up, if I’m working on several long-term projects with deadlines, I like to prioritize those projects with earlier deadlines. I block out my day so I make progress on all my projects, taking it one thing at a time. I try to build up good habits so that limited blocks of time are productive. I recognize what I need to make myself productive at each type of project and try to maintain those conditions.

All of that said, yeah, I still get overwhelmed at times. Sometimes then, the best thing to do is take a break, go for a walk, clear my head and look at it all afresh. Sometimes then, those alligators don’t look quite as big as I thought the first time and I’m able to wrestle them into their compartments and get on with my life.

Going Beyond

This past week, I’ve been working pretty intensively on two science fiction anthologies and answering questions from my editor about The Astronomer’s Crypt. Both of the anthologies I’ve been working on have been full of science fiction action and adventure. Star_Trek_Beyond_poster Of course, one of those is Kepler’s Cowboys and it’s still open to submissions. You can find the guidelines at http://www.hadrosaur.com/antho-gl.html. During the week, I decided to take a break by spending some time with the original space cowboys, the crew of the Starship Enterprise in their new film Star Trek Beyond.

My love of Star Trek goes back about as far as I remember. In fact, even before I remember seeing an episode, a friend encouraged me to use my G.I. Joes in an imagined Star Trek adventure. We had a toy van of some sort and that became the Enterprise. We had two G.I. Joes. One was Captain Kirk and the other was Scotty, needed because he could fix the Enterprise when things went wrong. Soon after that, I made a point of looking for Star Trek on television so I could actually see an episode. This was only about two years after it went off the air, but it had started running on reruns. I soon found it and was captivated by the idea of going into space and exploring new worlds. It was the beginning of my love of both science and science fiction.

I literally grew up with Star Trek. It wasn’t just that they had adventures in space, it’s that the episodes had just enough of the ring of truth to make me believe adventures in space were possible. What was perhaps even more important was that Captain Kirk and his crew worked hard to understand the aliens they encountered, even when those aliens might, at first, seem to be out to get them. The mission of the Enterprise was to make friends despite people’s differences—an idea that resonated with me as a child growing up in Southern California and seems even more powerful now in these times when racial, religious, and sexual strife are once again rearing their ugly heads.

Because I’ve loved Star Trek so long, I feel like my love is a little like the love I have for my brothers. Sometimes I have great fun with Star Trek. Sometimes Star Trek really annoys me. Sometimes I ignore it altogether, though I do tend to feel guilty when I do. When J.J. Abrams brought back the original Star Trek characters in 2009, I was excited. I went to the movie and loved its sense of adventure and being reunited with familiar characters. It also annoyed me. I think I audibly groaned when Leonard Nimoy watched Vulcan destroyed from the surface of a distant planet. (You have to be awfully close to a planet to see as much detail as he did!) Without going into a laundry list, there were multiple moments like that in both the 2009 Star Trek and 2013’s Star Trek Into Darkness.

What’s more, neither movie really gave us new worlds to explore. Both were about villains bent on taking revenge and harming the Earth. We didn’t get to see Captain Kirk even try to understand or make friends with these people. It wouldn’t have made sense in the context of those movies.

Which brings us to Star Trek Beyond. It opens with Kirk trying to make peace on an alien world. Although that doesn’t go so well, we don’t exactly forget that encounter and it pays off later in the story. The Enterprise soon goes to a new Federation space station, which is one of the most wondrous they’ve built. It reminded me of some of the cool things I’ve read in good SF novels, and even kind of reminded me a bit of the Babylon 5 space station. Then, they go off to explore an uncharted sector of space. They know there’s danger, an alien swarm that hurts others. In the course of the story, Kirk, Spock, and Scotty work to get to the bottom of the mystery and even make a friend or two along the way. I might have wondered about the science in a few places, but nothing made me audibly groan in the theater.

The end result was that Star Trek Beyond felt like going to one of those magical family reunions where everything actually went well and you realize why you love your family. I think a lot of credit goes to a solid script by Simon Pegg and Doug Jung. With a fourth Star Trek movie announced and a new TV series on the horizon, I hope the producers pay attention to what made this one work. It wasn’t perfect, but it embodied much of what makes Star Trek special to me.

Working on the Holidays

There has been a lot of backlash lately against retailers being open on Thanksgiving in the United States, and I’ll admit, I don’t have a lot of sympathy for Scrooge-like corporate executives who fear making a little less profit because they’ve given their employees some time with family. However, even if every retailer remained closed on Thanksgiving, there are a lot of people who would have to work, and I’m truly grateful for them. Some of those folks are pretty obvious, such as the doctors and nurses who work in the Emergency Room, fire crews, and utility workers. Will you be watching one of the big Thanksgiving ball games or perhaps the Mystery Science Theater 3000 Marathon? If so, be grateful for the people running the television stations and keeping the Internet up and running. Speaking of those games, there are the people who keep the stadiums clean, run the concessions, and sell tickets.

WIYN-2

As it turns out, Kitt Peak National Observatory does not close down for Thanksgiving either. The universe doesn’t take the day off, and neither do the astronomers who study it. This year, I lucked out and my schedule gave me the entire Thanksgiving weekend off work, which is a nice change of pace. I’ve had plenty of years where I’ve had to work all of the weekend or part of it. The photo above is from Thanksgiving 2013, when my daughter kept me company in the WIYN 3.5-meter telescope’s control room. The observer, Dr. Louise Edwards, was working remotely from Yale University taking spectra using the computer. Dr. Edwards communicated with us using Skype and it actually provided a neat opportunity for my daughter to interact with a woman who not only works in the sciences, but was featured on a Canadian postage stamp.

This brings me to one last group—those who work on the holidays simply because they enjoy it. I may have the weekend off from the observatory, but I’m in the home stretch of working through edits on The Astronomer’s Crypt and I have an exciting story idea that brings members of the Clockwork Legion and the Scarlet Order together that’s clamoring for me to write. Yeah, I’ll be making some quality time to hang out with family and friends, but you can bet that I’ll also spend some time working on these projects because, darn it, they’re fun. In fact, not getting a chance to work on these projects would almost feel like a punishment.

Another thing I enjoy is getting out to meet all of you. Because of that, I plan to be in Tucson on Saturday, November 28 at Bookmans on Speedway Boulevard from noon until 2pm for Tucson Writes. November is Shop Local-Give Local Month and Bookmans is celebrating by bringing in a number of local authors to sell and autograph their books. This is a great way to do some shopping for the holidays and get to know many local authors. I’ll have copies of all my novels there. If you’re in Tucson next weekend, I hope I’ll see you there!