Return to Bisbee

On the weekend of August 17 and 18, the Tucson Steampunk Society invaded the mining town of Bisbee, Arizona, a picturesque town a few miles south of Tombstone. This is the second year in a row I was able to join the group. As it turns out, I joined them after spending two weeks in a row at Kitt Peak National Observatory, so this provided a nice respite from my “day” job. As with last year, there were only a few scheduled events, making this a weekend where steampunks could meetup, relax, and actually socialize with one another. One of several highlights for the weekend was dinner at the Travellers Camp at Juniper Flats in the mountains above Bisbee. Here’s the whole group in a photo.

Photo courtesy Pete Mecozzi. Visit him online at:

In this case, the Travellers refer to “displaced people of Irish origin” and they provided a delightful supper of vegetable soup, chicken, and flat bread with herbs and bacon. They also provided wonderful Irish music.

After dinner, we moved on to another highlight of the weekend, the PG PJ Potluck Parlour Party. Like last year, I was invited to regale the attendees with a story. I read my story “The Zombie Shortage” which appears in the anthologies Zombiefied: An Anthology of All Things Zombie edited by Carol Hightshoe and then was reprinted in The Many Tortures of Anthony Cardno, edited by Anthony R. Cardno. As I mentioned in my recent post about editing and ego, it’s not always possible to read an audience, but I was pleased to find the audience laughing along with me as I read my wicked little tale that asks what happens should we suffer the zombie apocalypse, put the zombies to use, and then run out of zombies.

In fact, if you want to listen to the reading, Jim Springer of the Creative Play and Podcast Network recorded it and you can listen to the reading at:

One of many fun things about the Bisbee Inn where the steampunks gathered is that it’s also part of several ghost tours. Because of that, there’s a rather suspicious looking mannequin in the entryway. I have to pass him several times before I remind myself he is a mannequin and not a person. Perhaps one of the most delightful moments from the weekend came when I learned the Tucson steampunks had officially named the mannequin “Egon” after the assistant character in “The Zombie Shortage.”

Over the course of the weekend, I was delighted to make the acquaintance of Frank Goglia and his son, Joseph, of Meridian Books and Comics in Bisbee. He has a great stock of books and comics and after this weekend, he now has a few of my books. If you’re in Bisbee and you’re looking for some great reading, be sure to visit the store!

I find weekends like this are a vital part of recharging my creative energy. In fact, just before the weekend, I had received an invitation to pitch a story idea for a shared world anthology. Before the weekend, I almost dreaded pitching a story. It wasn’t so much a case of writer’s block as burn out from a long work shift and feeling the weight of several other projects that also needed attention. After the weekend, I saw several places to jump in and after several good emails with the anthology’s editor, I had a direction. Since then, I’ve turned my general story direction into an outline. As it turns out, this outline has no ending, but that’s fine. At this point, I see at least three possible endings all depending on who the characters reveal themselves to be when I actually write the story.

At this point, it’s a little too early for me to say much about the story itself. I want to wait and see if the editor likes the end result. What I will say is that the story is set in the past, but it’s not steampunk. Of course, there are many people who now want to carefully classify exactly what brand of retrofuturism a story explores. If it’s World War I era, it’s dieselpunk. If it’s the 1920s, it’s jazzpunk. If it’s after World War II, it’s atompunk. My story’s set in the 1980s, an era I lived through, so with tongue embedded in cheek, I’ll declare it punkpunk for now.

Now that my batteries are recharged, I just need to get ready for another week at the observatory, some editing work, then I can turn my attention to actually writing this story that I’m excited about thanks in no small part to my friends in the Tucson Steampunk Society.


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

Synchronicity & Inspiration

I returned to my job operating telescopes at Kitt Peak National Observatory in February 2008. That same day, another operator also started. Her name is Krissy, and she took her leave this week because she and her husband Tom are expecting their first child. Here we are on Christmas of 2008 at Kitt Peak along with my daughters and Krissy’s dog, Sushi.


As I mentioned, I returned to Kitt Peak in 2008. I originally left in October 1995, almost exactly twenty years before Krissy’s departure, to take a job that allowed me to be home most evenings because my wife and I were expecting our first daughter, who is lying on the couch in the photo.

Krissy’s departure comes as I’m working on my novel The Astronomer’s Crypt. One of the novel’s characters is a telescope operator who happens to be a mom named Kendra. Despite the fact that they both have “K” names, Kendra isn’t based on Krissy. In fact, I created the character long before I knew Krissy would be a mom. Kendra, like any good character, is built from an assortment of people I’ve known over the years, including many amazing women who have operated telescopes at Kitt Peak, Apache Point Observatory, and elsewhere. As it turns out, two of those operators are moms, and both of them are named Karen. Another “K” name. Thing is, Kendra’s name was inspired more by my wife Kumie than it was by any particular telescope operator I knew!

The character of Kendra isn’t the first time I’ve been inspired by my co-workers. Vampires of the Scarlet Order Jennifer was a telescope operator in the 1990s who coined the phrase “vampires of the mountain” to refer to telescope operators who were rarely seen except between sunset and sunrise. She also encouraged me to read Dracula and introduced me to the works of Anne Rice. All of that started me on the path to the novel Vampires of the Scarlet Order.

My co-worker Bridget left Kitt Peak to pursue graduate work in marine biology. Her interest in marine mammals inspired both the whale character Richard in Children of the Old Stars and the marine biologist Myra Lee in The Solar Sea.


I’ve worked with some pretty cool guys, too, such as Doug who spent a valuable day at the observatory showing me various sword forms. That time helped me better visualize the Samurai Hoshi’s swordplay in Lightning Wolves and my other forthcoming novel, The Brazen Shark. Doug’s a writer in his own right and you’ll find one of his stories in the anthology, A Kepler’s Dozen.

People often ask if my astronomy job inspires my science fiction. I think you can see that it has, and that the inspiration goes well beyond the realm of science fiction into my steampunk and horror writing as well. It’s important for a writer to get to know people and learn from them. I’ve been very fortunate to work in a place that not only lets me explore the universe, but lets me hang out with some very talented people. Now I’m just waiting to see if synchronicity takes effect and Krissy returns in a few years!

Artistic Inspiration

As a writer, I sometimes turn to artwork for inspiration. Danforth-painting A number of years ago, I bought the painting at the left from the wonderful artist Liz Danforth. As I recall, this was painted as an illustration for a collectable card game, but I liked the mysterious western story it implied. I asked myself who the lawman was and who was the mysterious figure lurking outside the window. Over time, as I worked with the characters and made them my own, the lawman became the owl-like, bespectacled sheriff, Ramon Morales. The figure outside the window seemed perhaps Arab or Persian, could be male or female. I imagined a witch, but as the character came to life in my mind, I realized she was really a healer who was misunderstood. If I were to describe Ramon and Fatemeh from Owl Dance and Lightning Wolves, I don’t think you’d see the characters in this painting, but the painting started the creative process rolling.

Speaking of the novel I’m writing, I managed to get stalled out over the holidays. It wasn’t really writer’s block or anything of that sort, just life getting in the way and being busy. I had to push past the inertia to get writing again. ornithopter While at Her Royal Majesty’s Steampunk Symposium in Long Beach last month, my artist’s table was next to the Nathaniel Johnstone Band. Nathaniel’s wife is the amazingly talented Laura Tempest Zakroff. I came to admire her artwork and asked if I could pay her to do a rendition of the owl ornithopters from my steampunk books. The illustration at right is the result. The feeling of adventure inspired by the mechanical owl in flight made me want to leap back into that world again and continue on.

For Valentine’s Day, my wife gave me a lovely knitted turquoise Jackalope. jackalope His contented expression and metallic antlers speak to me and suggest story ideas. I don’t know yet where a jackalope or something like one will appear, but I’m guessing it will happen sooner or later and it might well happen in the book I’m writing now.

If you’d like to meet Ramon and Fatemeh and see the owl ornithopters in action, try out a copy of Owl Dance or Lightning Wolves. Following the links will take you to pages where you can read sample chapters and find a variety of buying choices.

Has a piece of art inspired you? If so, I’d love to hear about it.

One Lovely Blog Award

I am honored to have been tagged with “One Lovely Blog Award by Kristina Perkins. She is an actress, a poet, and a force of nature. Be sure to visit her at

The rules for this award are:

  1. Give credit to the awesome person who nominated you and post the award at your site.
  2. Describe 7 things about yourself.
  3. Recommend 15 other bloggers

Seven random things about David Lee Summers

  1. I was voted “Best Writer in the Mesilla Valley” in the Las Cruces Bulletin’s Reader’s Choice Awards in 2001 and 2002.
  2. My “day” job at the observatory typically requires that I work from sunset (or a bit before) until sunrise.
  3. Despite that (or maybe because of it), I crave sunshine on my days away from the observatory and prefer to write during daylight hours.
  4. I love a good cup of coffee. It’s what allows me to swap schedules like I do!
  5. When I was a kid, my dad and I would watch horror movies and make snarky comments, a la Mystery Science Theater 3000. That’s probably why I tend to mix a sense of humor into my horror.
  6. Also when I was a kid, we used to drive across the country, which cultivated a life-long love of United States history, which I use in my steampunk fiction.
  7. One of my aunts was from Germany. From her, I discovered German language and culture, which in turn led me to a love of the original Grimms’ Fairy Tales, which have been an on-going source of inspiration for my fantasy stories.

Fifteen Blogs I like

Here are fifteen blogs I like. Some of these have appeared in other award posts I’ve done, but that’s just because they bear repeating!