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.

Que tal?

This past Friday, I was interviewed live on Las Cruces Community Radio Station, KTAL-LP 101.5FM, by Lynn Moorer for her show “Book Talk.” The station’s call letters were picked deliberately to evoke the Spanish phrase, “Que tal?” which means “What’s happening?” I mention this at the outset not just because it’s fun trivia, but because language ended up being a big theme of the interview. Unfortunately, the interview wasn’t recorded, so I can’t share a link with you, but I can share some highlights from the conversation.

The interview focused on my novel, The Brazen Shark, book three of my Clockwork Legion series. Like all of my series novels, I endeavor to make them stand alone and Lynn indicated she had no problem diving in. She was extremely well organized, with pages of notes and questions, plus her copy of the book had numerous passages marked. She did note that she hasn’t read much science fiction or alternate history. That aspect proved more of a challenge for her, but she clearly followed the book’s story and was captivated by its themes.

In the interview, Lynn asked me to give a broad description of the book. I described it as the story of a honeymoon gone quite wrong in 1877, Ramon and Fatemeh Morales have just been married and their friend, Captain Cisneros has taken them on a vacation to Hawaii. When business calls the captain to Japan, they decide to accompany him rather than staying behind. Once they get to Japan, they find themselves embroiled in a plot by samurai to steal a Russian airship and foment war between Japan and Russia.

It was clear from the interview that Lynn was especially fascinated by the character of Legion. Legion started life as an organic being who uploaded his consciousness into a computer. Over the years, that computer evolved and upgraded itself until it became a swarm of discrete elements that can travel at will through space. In the interview, we discussed how Legion saw humans as younger versions of himself. When we meet Legion in the first novel, Owl Dance, he’s not especially emotional. He embarks on an experiment to unify humanity. By The Brazen Shark, his time among humans has awaken his emotions and he feels a certain tenderness toward us and he realizes that there’s a danger that interference may have harmed us as a species.

Lynn also liked the idea that Legion could understand people’s thoughts and translate them for other people. In effect, Legion acts as a real-time translator, breaking down the barriers between people. As I pointed out in the interview, I see language as a window into culture, so Legion’s observations help the reader understand the disparate cultures in the novel as well as helping the characters understand each other.

Another aspect of the book Lynn highlighted was the role of women in the novel. Imagawa, Ipokash, and Fatemeh all have talents that arguably exceed their closest male counterparts. I did this deliberately when I wrote the novel. The late nineteenth century was a time when women stood up for their rights. It was the era of women’s suffrage and the era of women taking prominent roles in academia. I wanted strong, but believable women to be a hallmark of the novel.

The novel is available locally in Las Cruces at COAS Books on Main Street. It’s also available through Amazon.

Gamera

I think it’s fair to say that I grew up watching a lot of media from Japan. A lot was anime such as Tetsujin 28, Mach Go, Go, Go, and Gatchaman, perhaps better known here in the United States as Gigantor, Speed Racer, and Battle of the Planets respectively. However, I can’t overlook the role of giant monsters, or kaiju. Godzilla is clearly the most famous, but when I was a kid, my hero was Gamera.

I was thrilled to find Blu-ray copies of Gamera’s first eight films a few weeks ago. I’ve slowly been working my way through them. I’ve run into some people who think Gamera is part of the menagerie who battled Godzilla during his ongoing reign as King of Monsters. In fact, Gamera was the property of an altogether different movie studio. Godzilla’s stories were filmed at Toho Studios. Gamera was competitor Daiei’s entry into the kaiju arena.

For those not familiar with Gamera, he’s a giant fire-breathing turtle with tusks awakened from arctic ice during a dogfight between US and Soviet forces. Although he goes on a rampage for energy in the first film, he seems to have a soft spot for humans, and children in particular. In later films of the series, he’s revealed to be something of a guardian for humanity, protecting them from other monsters. The first eight films take place during Japan’s Shōwa period—the reign of Emperor Hirohito.

To be perfectly honest, the first eight Gamera films are far from great cinema. There’s a good reason several of them were featured on Mystery Science Theater 3000. However, I’ve long had the sense that the people behind the film series knew their limitations and had fun with them. At one point Gamera defeats a shark monster called Zigra, then plays a couple of bars of his own theme song on its back. Afterwards, he does a little dance. Another great moment comes in Gamera Super Monster when Gamera is ordered to go on a rampage by aliens and knocks over a sandwich board advertising a Godzilla film. Scenes like these make me think the Shōwa Gamera films have more in common with the 1960’s televised Batman than with films like Manos: The Hands of Fate filmed just down the road in El Paso, Texas.

As it turns out, Gamera was reimagined for a trilogy of really good films in the 1990s. These Heisei-era Gamera films gave a solid backstory to the titular turtle. He still attempts to protect mankind as a whole, but he’s still a giant monster and is prone to mass destruction. Not everyone likes Gamera in these films. The Heisei-era Gamera films also presented some cool glimpses into life in many different parts of Japan. I highly recommend Gamera: Guardian of the Universe and its two sequels.

My love of these films is a small part of what makes me the writer I am today. As a kid, I was drawn to the action and good-natured humor of these films. If it weren’t for these films, I probably wouldn’t have sought out more serious Japanese films like those of Akira Kurosawa, which gave me a deeper appreciation of Japanese culture and storytelling. Writing what we know is, among other things, writing what interests us. So watching Gamera films as a kid, was a first step toward writing my novel The Brazen Shark about samurai resisting cultural change in an alternate, steampunk Japan.

If you’d like to learn more about The Brazen Shark and my inspirations for the novel, I’ll be interviewed on the radio this Friday, July 13 on KTAL Community Radio from 12:30 to 1:00pm Mountain Daylight Time. My friends in Las Cruces can listen on the radio on 101.5 FM. For my friends outside the area, you can listen at: https://www.lccommunityradio.org/stream.html

Memorial Day

Today is Memorial Day, the day set aside for remembering those soldiers who gave their life for the country. I was surprised to learn that although Memorial Day has been recognized by the states for a long time, it only became an official Federal holiday during my lifetime. Memorial Day was one of the holidays created by the 1968 Uniform Monday Holiday Act, which went into effect in 1971. That’s the point that the Memorial Day holiday started being celebrated on the last Monday in May.

The Memorial Day weekend has become traditionally associated with the beginning of the summer season in the United States. This year, my schedule at Kitt Peak worked out that I had to work the entire holiday weekend. Normally, working at the observatory over a holiday weekend isn’t much of a hardship, but this year, my shift started with wild 55 mile per hour winds, too high to open the telescope. Also, I’ve been suffering from a bout of sinus congestion. When we were able to open, the telescope where I was working developed some networking problems, which meant instead of working on cosmic mysteries, I was busy running between a couple of buildings (in the high wind) swapping out parts trying to solve more mundane computer mysteries. Fortunately the weather has improved as the weekend has progressed, and last night we were able to open the Mayall 4-meter to clear skies as shown in the photo.

Of course, I’m not the only person working this Memorial Day weekend. It’s all too easy to forget that many people have to work on weekends to do everything from keeping essential services running to keeping our favorite retail stores open so we can go shopping. In fact, if I weren’t working at the observatory this weekend, I’d likely be at a convention this weekend discussing my books and manning a booth. My next event will be Westercon 70 in Phoenix, Arizona, on the July 4 weekend.

Even though I’m not at a convention this weekend, I still had a unique opportunity to give a presentation about my writing work. I was interviewed by Emily Guerra of KRWG-FM, the NPR affiliate in Las Cruces, New Mexico for the PUENTES: Bridges to the Community segment of the station’s Fronteras news show. You can listen to the interview at their website: http://krwg.org/post/astronomy-steampunk-fiction. I was also pleased to see a review of my novel Owl Dance at the Steampunk Journal website: https://www.steampunkjournal.org/2017/05/24/owl-dance-david-lee-summers-review/#

One of the goals of my Clockwork Legion Steampunk series is to tell a good tale where the protagonists are actively doing their best to find peaceful solutions to the problems they encounter. In a way, I think that speaks to the spirit of a holiday like Memorial Day. After all, what better way to honor those who have fallen protecting us and our freedoms than working toward a world where no one else has to fall in battle.

The Astronomer’s Crypt, on Lisa Burton Radio

Last week, Mike Teter from my novel The Astronomer’s Crypt was interviewed on Lisa Burton Radio. Lisa Burton is a robot who interviews characters from novels on her radio show. The transcripts appear on Craig Boyack’s blog.

In fact, Lisa is Craig’s brainchild and we collaborated to put together this “radio” segment. After I told him about the novel, he drafted a set of questions Mike to answer. I put myself in character and answered the questions. I realized in the process of writing this that one of the other characters in the novel might not like what Mike was saying, so he calls in.

I hope you’ll go check out Lisa’s interview with Mike. She puts him on the spot and asks tough questions that make him uncomfortable. If you’re a writer, you should check out Craig’s guidelines and consider having Lisa interview one of your characters. If you’re a reader, be sure to check out more of the Lisa Burton segments. You’re sure to find some great books and you may discover a new favorite character!

Entertaining Stories

Don’t touch that dial, you’ve found Lisa Burton Radio. Coming at you with 1.21 jigawatts of power, this is the only show that interviews the characters from the books you love. I’m your host, Lisa the robot girl, and with me today is Mike Teter. Mike is an astronomer with the Carson Peak Observatory in New Mexico. “Welcome to the show, Mike.”

“Hi Lisa, it’s great to be here. Thanks for having me on the show.”

“My bio says you’ve recently returned to the observatory after a two year hiatus. What happened, grass wasn’t greener?”

“Actually, leaving the observatory was the hardest thing I’d ever done. You see, a terrible blizzard blew in my last night there and the two of us working that night decided to leave the site. Ron Wallerstein drove ahead of me. He was going a little too fast when he reached a bridge spanning a…

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Multitasking

This has been a busy week at Kitt Peak National Observatory. I’ve been helping with infrared images of supernovae, taking spectra of galaxies to understand their composition, and taking images of some of the earliest known galaxy clusters. In the meantime, my third steampunk novel is due with Sky Warrior Publishing in about six weeks. So I’ve been reviewing the manuscript so far and making edits here and there as I have time. Here you see me on a typical night, operating the telescope.

Operating Telescope

When moving a telescope from one target to another, there are several jobs that must be accomplished quickly. You must make sure you’re moving the telescope to a position it can reach mechanically. You have to make sure that an off-axis camera is set up to keep the telescope on target. You have to make sure the telescope is in good focus. You must check to make sure the dome and the mirror support systems are working properly. You have to pay attention to see if the visiting scientists are having problems or questions. When I learned how to operate the telescope, the woman who trained me used to hover behind me and say, “Multitask! Multitask!”

Research suggests humans are actually pretty poor at multitasking. Now, if you read the article I linked, they define multitasking as focusing on several things at one time. Instead of being able to multitask well, they say that humans are good at focusing on discrete tasks and shifting their focus from one thing to another very quickly. It’s a subtle but real distinction.

Because I work long hours at the telescope—as long as 16 hours a night in the middle of winter—I’m often asked if I write while I work. In fact, I find it difficult to compose stories while I’m at work because so many things vie for my attention and I have to shift attention quickly. To compose a story or a chapter, I need to be at home away from too many distractions. I’m definitely not the kind of person who can sit in a coffee shop and write.

What I can do at the telescope (when the programs allow it) is read and edit. I’m using something more like the analytical parts of my brain than when I’m composing new material. I can shift my focus quickly from editing tasks to a job at the telescope if I need to.

In order to be a successful writer, you need several related skills. You need to be able to compose a story. You need to be able to evaluate and edit what you’ve written. You need to read good works by others critically. This is all before the economic reality of putting on your marketing hat and telling others about your work.

Write everyday is great advice and I’d argue that a true writer can’t help but follow it. That said, writing is composed of several discrete tasks and I don’t necessarily do every task every day. If you find composing something new everyday is difficult, as I do, why not identify the discrete parts of your writing job and do them when you can? Carry your manuscript with you. As you see in the photo above, I have my laptop with me at work. Pull out a work in progress and go back over it. If nothing else, carry a book with you and read for a while. Instead of “write everyday,” I like to say “do the job of a writer everyday.” Multitask! Multitask!

For those who may have missed it, I was featured author this past week at the Lachesis Publishing blog. Here are the posts:

Interview: David Lee Summers, Author of Lightning Wolves

I’m interviewed this week on the Dab of Darkness Blog. I’m asked a bunch of fun questions ranging from which dead authors I’d invite to dinner to what fantastical beasts I would like to encounter.

Dab of Darkness

SummersLightningWolvesFolks, please welcome David Lee Summers to the blog once again. He’s previously gifted me with a bit of his time in this other interview. Today we chat about fairy tales, Star Wars, Cherie Priest’s works, awkward fan moments, and question over the correct use of the term ‘parsec’. I had quite a bit of fun in reading through David’s answers and I expect you’ll be as entertained as I am.

Myths and beliefs that we would consider fiction or fantasy in modern literature once upon a time shaped history (think of all the hunts for unicorns & dragons). Do you see modern fantasy fiction affecting human cultures today and how?

One of my favorite poetry collections isJean Hull Herman‘s Jerry Springer as Bulfinch or Mythology Modernized. Throughout her collection, Ms. Herman recounts stories of Greek myth and recounts similar episodes from the Jerry Springer Show

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