Road Trip to the Grand Canyon

This year, the Airship Ambassador’s Steampunk Hands Around the World event is going on a road trip and exploring new places. One of the things I’ve enjoyed doing when writing my Clockwork Legion books is visiting places around the world and imagining them with a steampunk twist. So, I thought it would be fun to visit some of the places that appear in the novels and share my connection to them. For this first post, I’m going to the Grand Canyon in Northern Arizona.

A lot of steampunk has a very urban and gritty feel set in places like London of the nineteenth century. However, in my novel Owl Dance, I introduced Professor M.K. Maravilla, an engineer and naturalist who builds machines to mimic the animals he studies. Because of that, you don’t tend to find him in urban environments, but out in nature. In Owl Dance, Ramon Morales and Fatemeh Karimi encounter the professor at the Grand Canyon.

The reason the professor is at the Grand Canyon is that he’s built ornithopters in the shape of owls so he can study how they fly. An ornithopter is an aircraft that flies by flapping its wings like birds. I actually had the idea for the ornithopters from a visit to canyon and seeing California Condors gliding on the canyon’s air currents. This was especially amazing to me because I grew up in California and remember a museum exhibit that discussed how California Condors were near extinction. I never figured I would ever see them in real life, yet I saw them flying and swooping over the canyon and couldn’t help but think how much fun it would be to be them, swooping and flying over the canyon.

The reason I used owls instead of condors in the story is two-fold. First off, the condors were introduced to the canyon as part of a breeding program to help increase their numbers. Even in 1877, while there likely would have been condors in the canyon, their numbers wouldn’t have been numerous. Second, Professor Maravilla develops an interest in owls from his association with Fatemeh Karimi. So, the interest had a direct narrative connection.

Back in 2015, while at Her Royal Majesty’s Steampunk Symposium, artist Laura Tempest Zakroff was selling her art next to us. I admired her wonderful artwork and commissioned an illustration of Professor Maravilla’s owl ornithopter. You can see her work above. In the novels, the professor sells the ornithopters to the army and the industrialist, Captain Cisneros, also develops his own version. The owl ornithopter in Laura Givens’ cover for Owl Riders is different from Tempest’s design, but Givens’ design reflects several years of in-world development!

I hope you’ve enjoyed this steampunk road trip stop. If you would like to explore Owl Dance and all the places visited in the novel, you visit http://www.davidleesummers.com/owl_dance.html to get more information and find all the places the novel is available.

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Owl Riders Edits

These last days of 2017 find me hard at work polishing Owl Riders, the fourth novel in my Clockwork Legion steampunk series. My editor has given me his notes and my revisions are due this Wednesday, December 20. While I don’t have a final publication date yet, Larry Bonham at Sky Warrior Publishing indicated they were shooting for a spring release.

In the series, the alien called Legion has unleashed humanity’s potential in the nineteenth century. Now, Legion has gone. The United States Army with its ornithopters has reached a standoff with Apache warriors armed with mighty war machines. Ramon and Fatemeh’s exploits have been immortalized in a novel called Owl Riders. Now Ramon is called away to solve the dispute and Fatemeh’s one-time betrothed arrives on the scene. I hope you’re looking forward to this fourth installment in the series!

Because of staffing changes at Sky Warrior, I’m working with a new editor. This is always something of a nervous thing, especially given that I’m an introvert who doesn’t find it easy to open up to new people. I’m showing something I’ve worked on for much of the past year to a complete stranger and hoping they “get it.” Of course, I hope that’s true with any reader who buys one of my books, but I’m trusting the editor to help me find ways to make my narrative clearer and more palatable to readers.

In this case, my new editor has made very few suggestions about actual scenes. Instead, he’s suggested a rearrangement of scenes to provide a more clear narrative flow. He also suggested reducing the number of point of view characters. On one hand, I feel like having a small number of limited third-person points of view is largely genre fashion right now. However, I do have to admit that applying this advice has helped me tighten several of the story arcs without having to do much rewriting.

Will there be more novels in the series after Owl Riders. The most honest answer I can give is “I hope so, but it depends.” Owl Riders was written such that I endeavored to wrap up as many dangling plot threads as possible from the first three books. Also, I built a trilogy where an alien being significantly altered the flow of history. I wanted to explore what happened after this alien influence had moved on. In that sense, this book serves as a conclusion to the series. That said, I’ve attempted to set the world up such that I could continue to tell stories with these characters in new situations. One could see it as the first book of a new story arc, or possibly a transition from the old story arc to a new one. In fact, my story “Fountains of Blood” in the anthology Straight Outta Tombstone is set about ten years after the events of Owl Riders, so new stories can definitely be told.

In the end, a lot will depend on how well all the books continue to sell. That will determine my publisher’s interest in acquiring more books in the series. If you’re already a fan of the series, please spread the word. If you’ve dropped by this post and I’ve piqued your curiosity about the books, you can explore more at the links below. You can read the first chapter of each book as well as find links to your favorite retailers.

New Orleans Pharmacy Museum

I’ve been spending much of this last week revising my fourth Clockwork Legion novel Owl Riders. This is the pass when I’m working to make sure the novel is internally consistent, clean up the prose, get rid of all but the most essential of those pesky adverbs, and make sure the scenes are not too rushed nor bogged down with info dumps. This is also the pass where I attempt to touch up the history. Although I try to get things correct in the first pass, I sometimes find there are details that add credibility to the story.

When I was recently in New Orleans, Marita Crandle of Boutique du Vampyre recommended I visit the New Orleans Pharmacy Museum. The suggestion was uncanny because I had not told her about the character of Fatemeh in my Clockwork Legion novels. Those who’ve read the books know she’s a healer. As the books continue, she seeks more formal training. By the beginning of Owl Riders, she has a pharmacy degree. The timing is not inconsistent with history. The woman to get a pharmacy degree was Mary Corinna Putnam Jacobi, who graduated from the New York College of Pharmacy in 1863. So, a trip to the Pharmacy Museum seemed in order.

The New Orleans Pharmacy Museum is on Chartres Street in New Orleans’ French Quarter on the site of America’s first licensed pharmacy. It’s about a block away from the site of the fictional pharmacy in Owl Riders. In history, the bottles of brightly colored liquids in the front window known as “show globes” weren’t just decorative. If all the bottles in the window had the same thing, you knew there was an epidemic in the city the pharmacy had plenty of the remedy in stock. If the bottles were multiple colors, the pharmacist was advertising their skills compounding a variety of medicines and cosmetics. Yes, compounding cosmetics was part of an early pharmacist’s job. They might also have a soda fountain, since the forerunners of modern soft drinks were believed to be tonics of one variety or another. Here’s a look at the kinds of bottles and shelves that would have stood behind the counter of a nineteenth century pharmacy such as the one I have in my novel.

If you visit the museum, I highly recommend going in time to hear the daily presentation. When I visited, that happened at 1pm. The museum’s website is http://www.pharmacymuseum.org/ and you can check for any updates, plus they have several photos of their exhibits. During the tour, they discussed the history of the pharmacy on the site, the practices of early pharmacies, and how early drugs were administered.

Of course the museum tour pointed out that one of the reasons New Orleans started licensing pharmacies was to make things more difficult for traditional healers, many of whom were female and people of color, a fact that’s true of my character Fatemeh. This was already a subject I’d addressed in the novel, but in this last week’s pass I added just a little bit to show how she had to work to overcome officials who might not welcome her services.

Get ready for Owl Riders by reading the three novels that come before it. Who knows, you might find the cure for what ails you!

Revision Hell

This past week, I’ve been reading and revising my rough draft of Owl Riders, getting in shape for beta readers and ultimately getting it ready to submit to my publisher. Despite the post’s title, the process hasn’t been hellish, but it does eat time. Owl Riders is the fourth novel in my Clockwork Legion series and the fun of this process is that I enjoy playing in this world. It’s because I enjoy it that I feel I have a responsibility to tell the story in the best way possible.

I’m a believer that to succeed in writing, you need to sit down and write. As with my other recent novels, I wrote Owl Riders on my weeks off from my observatory job. Typically, I managed two chapters every other week. I didn’t worry too much about getting just the right words the first time through. I wrote from an outline to keep me on track and help me know where I was in the story, but I didn’t worry too much about tracking details. So my job this time around is to assure continuity, make sure I didn’t repeat facts I already conveyed in earlier chapters, and improve the prose so I tell the story in the best way possible.

To do this, I employ a three-prong approach for each chapter. First, I make a pass through the printed manuscript, rereading and making changes. I also make notes of facts I should remember for later chapters. Some of these facts are just matters of maintaining consistency of small details through the novel. Some of these facts are things I’d forgotten I highlighted, but are fun to revisit later in the novel as the characters have grown. I recently acquired a copy of Scrivener, the book writing software from Literature and Latte. It’s been a great help keeping those notes handy so I can check them as needed.

My second pass through each chapter uses a technique highlighted in the book, The 10% Solution by Ken Rand, which I’ve mentioned in other posts. My publisher also recommends following the book’s approach before submission. In short, the book highlights several common overused words (the infamous adverbs, the verb “to be”) and filler words (things like “of,” “about,” and “by”) that are all too easy to drop in your manuscript when you’re writing. The idea is to search for these words and then evaluate the phrase where it occurs and decide if you could find a better way to say it. I tend to catch a lot of this in the first pass, but searching always highlights more of these. The important thing about Ken Rand’s technique is that he doesn’t say you must make changes when you find these things. He just suggests evaluating the sentence and seeing if you can say it better. I usually make several revisions in this pass.

My third pass is to read each chapter aloud. This helps me smooth out prose from the first two passes, helps me to hear where I may have repeated phrases, and I often catch important elements I either cut or never wrote in the first place.

At this point, I’m about halfway through the revision pass. I hope to get more work done during my next break from the observatory. In this fourth novel, the Apaches have built battle wagons and they’ve carved out a land claim in Southern Arizona. Ramon is pulled into the conflict. Meanwhile, the man Fatemeh was once betrothed to in Persia seeks retribution for her decision to run away. If you haven’t already, be sure to read the first three novels in the series. The links below will take you to pages with more information and purchase links. All of the books are available in print and as ebooks. The first two novels are also available from Audible as audio books!

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.

Roughing It

Since the beginning of this year, I’ve been plugging away on the rough draft of my eleventh novel, Owl Riders. The novel will be the fourth in my Clockwork Legion series, which includes Owl Dance, Lightning Wolves, and The Brazen Shark.

I haven’t said much about the new novel as I’m writing it, partly since it’s novel four, it’s tricky to discuss it without giving spoilers for the first three novels. However, what I will say is that I hope this novel closes up some loose ends from the first three novels while possibly serving as the first book of a second trilogy featuring these characters. Whether that last part happens will depend on demand.

Those who follow this blog, know that I’ve also been busy with several other tasks, which have included the release and promotion of my novel The Astronomer’s Crypt and the anthology Kepler’s Cowboys, plus, of course, I’ve been shepherding the anthology Maximum Velocity: The Best of the Full-Throttle Space Tales toward completion. Of course, on top of these are visits to conventions and, oh yeah! I have an actual “day” job operating telescopes!

Ideally, I like to luxuriate in the drafting process. I’m the kind of author who likes to spend time in a scene, really immersing myself in it. I write fast, so in the past I’ve often done things like think about a scene for two or three days, then furiously write four or five thousand words in a sitting. Afterwards, I would go back and reread what I’ve written, making corrections and generally trying to make sure I haven’t left out parts or repeated parts. My hope is that when I’m done with this, I’ll have a rough draft that won’t need all that much work to turn into a published novel. Yeah, right.

My beta readers and my editors always find stuff I missed. It’s partly because of time and partly because of this realization that I’ve been taking more of a NaNoWriMo approach to this novel. For those who don’t know what that is, NaNoWriMo is the National Novel Writing Month and the formal event happens in November. The goal is to write 50,000 words in a month. To do this, you just draft and don’t look back at what you’ve written, just keep plunging forward.

In fact, my novels, The Solar Sea and Dragon’s Fall: Rise of the Scarlet Order started as NaNoWriMo novels, when I was challenged to participate by my publisher.

The best strategy I found to complete NaNoWriMo was to set myself a daily word count goal and stick to it. That’s essentially what I’ve been doing with Owl Riders. On an ideal day, I wake up, have breakfast, check my mail for important messages, go for a two-mile walk, write 1000 words, have lunch, go for another walk, write another 1000 words, go for a final walk, then get on with the other business of the day. I find that during the walks, I can spend time visualizing the scenes as I prefer, plus it gets me up and moving around, so I can avoid a repeat of the thrombosis scare I had earlier this year.

As I say, this is an ideal routine. Because of the nature of my “day” job operating telescopes from sunset to sunrise, I can’t easily write on those days. Also, if I have a time-critical item on of my other projects, I’ll give myself a break and only require myself to complete 1000 words, rather than 2000 words in a day. As it is, I’m making steady progress. I know I’ll have to go back over the whole thing with a fine tooth comb and make sure the whole book works together. I’m sure there are wordy places I’ll cut and places where I’ll need to add detail, but I’d do that even if I took my time drafting the manuscript.

While waiting around to see how well I succeed, you can read the first three Clockwork Legion novels. All the links above will take you to my pages describing the books which include links to retailers where you can purchase the book. Also, all three of the original Clockwork Legion novels are available in a single budget edition from Kobo and Barnes and Noble.

Hearing My Own Words

Last week, I finally had the chance to hear the audio book edition of my novel Owl Dance. It might surprise you to hear that I didn’t get a chance to listen to it until after it was released, but by contract, my publisher has the right to create an audio edition and there’s nothing in the contract that says I have a right of approval. My approval process wrapped up when the publisher and I agreed the novel was ready for print.

It might sound like I’m complaining about the process, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, a lot of work goes into writing, editing, and promoting my books…not to mention my other full-time job operating telescopes. It was actually kind of nice to let my publisher handle all the logistics behind arranging the production and proofing the final product. I was glad to know another edition of my book was coming out and I didn’t have to add another task to my plate to make it happen.

So, what did I think of the final product? I think narrator Edward Mittelstedt did a fine job. He had a great range of voices and a nice delivery speed that was clear and understandable. His pronunciation of names like “Fatemeh” and “Maravilla” were somewhat different than mine, but they weren’t wrong. In particular, he pronounces “Maravilla” in a kind of a South American accent, which suits the character.

Recently a friend asked if I had a difficult time enjoying the books I read. Her thought was that as a professional writer and editor, I might be so busy critiquing books I read that I couldn’t just sit back and enjoy them. My answer was that I’ve reached a point where I can read books critically, but still enjoy them. The critical part of my brain is sort of like a background task I can access when needed.

That said, I found listening to my own book was much more difficult than listening to books by other authors. Time has passed since I wrote the book and I have gained a new perspective on my words hearing them read by another person. I found myself critiquing my word choices, plot, and character decisions all through the story. Despite that, my overall impression of the book was positive. I felt like I heard the kind of story I like. That said, there were word choices and particularly some repeated phrases I wouldn’t mind revisiting if the chance ever presented itself.

I’ve come to the point where I strongly recommend writers read their work aloud at some point during the edit. It helps you hear phrases you use too often or too close together. I hadn’t quite reached the point where I was doing that regularly when I wrote Owl Dance and I caught a few places where it showed. I’ve taken the lesson to heart and will be applying it as I go forward. Hopefully these issues attracted my attention because I was listening at a more detail-oriented level than most listeners (or readers) will.

If you’d like to travel back in time to an 1877 that wasn’t, but could have been if a sheriff and a healer started wandering the West together while a visitor from the stars encouraged the Russian Empire to unify the world under one leader, you can read a sample chapter and find links to all the books editions at http://www.davidleesummers.com/owl_dance.html