Short Sleeps

When I tell people I live in Las Cruces, New Mexico, but work at Kitt Peak National Observatory outside Tucson, Arizona, one of the first questions I’m asked is some variation of how that works, especially once they realize the two points are approximately 325 miles apart. The answer is that I have a dorm room at the observatory. Here’s what it looks like.

The room is assigned to me permanently, so as you can see, I’ve added some personal touches. This time of year, I’m afraid I don’t get to spend much time in the comfort of my room. I often think of the period from November through February as the time of the short sleeps. It’s sort of a counterpoint to Clement Moore’s “long winter’s nap” from his famous poem, “A Visit from St. Nicholas.”

Of course, the reason this is the time of the short sleeps is because of the long winter night. At optical observatories, we try to maximize the time we’re on the sky and that means data taking starts soon after sunset and finishes just a little before sunrise. To get the telescope ready for observations, I actually have to be at work before sunset. How close to sunrise we work in the morning depends on the scientific requirements of the program, but it’s not uncommon for me to work right up until sunrise. This time of year, it’s not uncommon for me to get six hours of sleep through the day before starting another day of work. Even if I wanted to commute 325 miles each day, it would be impossible.  For that matter, living closer wouldn’t necessarily help. It’s still 50 miles to Tucson.

I’m often asked whether I can write during my long nights at the observatory. The reality is that work takes enough of my attention that I really can’t compose new material while I’m at work. However, sometimes we do get into situations where I’m monitoring a long exposure and just need to look up from time to time to make sure the instrumentation is behaving as expected. During those times, I find I can edit stories. I also sometimes bring a good book to keep me company on a long winter’s night.

A casual observer will likely notice from the photo of my room that I’m a fan of Cowboy Bebop. Of course, followers of this blog will know that I’m generally a fan of space cowboys and space pirates. A closer look at the photo will reveal some badges from past conventions tacked to the bulletin board in the background. My schedule is such that it’s not uncommon for me to go from an event directly to work at the observatory.

My favorite things in this photo, though, are two things made for me by my family. My wife made the crochet jackalope next to my bed, which helped to inspire the jackalope harvesters in my Clockwork Legion novels. My daughter drew the lightning wolf picture which hangs to the right of my bed. The lightning wolf is, of course, the mechanized bicycle designed by bounty hunter Larissa Crimson in the same series. I’ve shown off both of these in more detail in other posts.

Of course, the Clockwork Legion books make good companions through the long, dark nights of winter. You can learn more about the books by visiting the links at: http://www.davidleesummers.com/books.html#clockwork_legion

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Coco

This past weekend, I finally had the opportunity to watch Disney/Pixar’s film, Coco. It tells the story of a boy who wants to be a musician, but music is banned in his family of practical shoemakers because his great-great grandfather abandoned the family to pursue his own musical dreams. The boy, Miguel, gets transported to the land of the dead on Día de los Muertos and learns the truth about his family history along with ways to bring the power of music back to his family. I was warned that it was an emotionally affecting tale. I teared up anyway. If you haven’t seen it yet, you should.

Día de los Muertos has held a special place in my heart for a long time now. Although I’m ethnically some mix of German and Celt, my family has lived in Nuevo México for more than a century. Día de los Muertos is actively celebrated in Mesilla and Las Cruces—and I live next to a cemetery. Family and their stories have long been important to me as a writer and Día de los Muertos is all about remembering family and their stories.

Listening to the film’s commentary track, it was clear the filmmakers took care to represent the celebration as authentically as possible. This pleased me, but it also gave me something to think about. A week before on the NPR food show, “Milk Street Radio,” a chef talked about the fallacy of creating culturally authentic dishes. The reason he described it as a fallacy is that what foods and cooking appliances are available in a region change and shift with time. What’s more cultures shift as people migrate and as technology changes. The food he cooks in America today is closer to what he grew up with than the food cooked now in his hometown.

Día de los Muertos is very much a part of Southern New Mexico’s culture and the film’s depiction is almost identical to what you’ll see here. Almost is one of the keys. While people celebrate at the cemetery, we also have ofrendas on the Mesilla town square. While you see marigolds like they had in the movie, we see a lot of other flowers as well. We even say “Día de los Muertos” while other people say “Día de Muertos.” Both have been used to describe the celebration going back to the sixteenth century and both are used in the movie. The former is literally “Day of the Dead” while the latter tends to be a more specific reference to All Souls Day.

In recent years, I’ve often seen culture erected like a wall to keep outsiders at bay. I prefer it when culture exists as a bridge to allow others a glimpse into the important aspects of people’s lives. That’s why I liked Coco. That’s also why I set a pivotal scene at a Día de los Muertos celebration in my novel Owl Dance. You can learn more about the novel at: http://www.davidleesummers.com/owl_dance.html

I’ll wrap up today’s post with a poem I wrote back in 2003 that gives you a glimpse of the importance of Día de los Muertos to my family. Christina Sng published it in her zine Macabre the following spring.

Pan de Muerto

All Soul’s Day—The Day of the Dead—
Picnics and parties at the cemetery.
Gravestones decorated with flowers,
Pinwheels, photos, favorite toys,
Candies and pan de muerto—
The Bread of the Dead.

My daughter and I make the bread.
She beats the eggs—even in death,
There is the memory of new life.
I add the orange essence—memory
Of the orange trees Grandpa—
My dad—loved so much.

Together, my daughter and I add the
flour—grown from the soil where
Grandpa now rests. Together we
Kneed the dough—making a
Connection across time.
Grandfather to father to daughter.

We set the bread out with a photo,
Some Halloween candy, and many
Happy memories. Sleep that night is
Restless. There is a chill in the air.
Morning comes and a chunk is gone
From the Bread of the Dead.

Branigan Library Book Talk on Wednesday

On Wednesday, June 13 at 1:30pm, the Friends of the Branigan Library in Las Cruces, New Mexico have invited me to present a Book Talk about my Clockwork Legion novels. I’ll be presenting at the library’s main branch at the corner of Picacho and Main Streets.

I’m proud to have called the Mesilla Valley my home for the last 23 years. It’s a real honor to give a presentation and reading in my home town. Garnering an interest in history from family trips as a child, I brought my interests together in the Clockwork Legion novels. The Clockwork Legion series includes four novels: Owl Dance, Lightning Wolves, The Brazen Shark, and Owl Riders. In the Clockwork Legion novels I combine science fiction and history to imagine a world that wasn’t, but could have been, weaving stories reminiscent of those told by H.G. Wells and Jules Verne.

The Clockwork Legion novels follow the adventures of Ramon Morales, a former sheriff of Socorro, and Fatemeh Karimi, a healer from Persia. During their adventures together, they meet inventors, outcasts, misfits, and even pirates who they gather together when the Russians use airships to invade the Civil War-ravaged United States in 1877.

The third novel in the series, The Brazen Shark, was voted Best Steampunk Novel in the 2017 Preditors and Editors Reader’s Poll. The fourth novel in the series, Owl Riders, was just released. I’m an active member of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America and a former vice president of the Science Fiction Poetry Association. My poems have been nominated for the Rhysling and Dwarf Stars Awards by the Science Fiction Poetry Association.

In my presentation, I plan to talk about the history of steampunk and weird western stories. I also plan to talk about how I got started writing steampunk and weird westerns in general as well as how the Clockwork Legion novels in particular came about. I’ll give a couple of readings and I will have books available for sale at the talk. I gather refreshments will be served as well. If you’re in Las Cruces, I hope you’ll join me for this fun Book Talk. I look forward to meeting you.

If you want to learn more about the books before the talk, visit: http://www.davidleesummers.com/books.html#clockwork_legion

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.

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!