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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Owls from the Dark Side

With the first novel in my Clockwork Legion series titled Owl Dance and the fourth, in progress, tentatively titled Owl Riders, you might think I have a fondness for owls, and you would be right. I find them fascinating, elusive creatures. They do an important job, eating vermin. A few years ago, a family of burrowing owls nested in a field near my home. Going by their nests on my daily walks, I developed something of a rapport with them. I would whistle at them and they would whistle back, sometimes doing a little dance going back and forth from one foot to the other. In fact, that’s where the title, Owl Dance came from. The photo below was taken at Wild Wild West Con in Tucson where I’m posing with my daughter and one of the world’s largest owls, a Eurasian Eagle Owl.

David and Myranda

The thing is, owls are not universally regarded as likeable or good. If you look at the photo above, one of the first things you should notice is the size of the owl’s claws. I was very aware when it sat on my arm that that owl was a powerful hunter. When I lived in the small town of Madrid, New Mexico, owls were known to hunt any cats running loose after dark. Sometimes I drive up to work at Kitt Peak National Observatory after dark and see a rather large owl sitting on the road. One time, the owl took off in front of me causing me to slam on the brakes. It was an awesome and terrifying sight.

Many Native American tribes actively dislike owls. They are believed to harbor the spirits of the dead. Hearing an owl hoot at night can be considered an ill omen. The following appears on the official website of the Mescalero Apache: “The owl is a night creature and the Apache people do not have contact with this animal. Avoid having a night owl near you. It is considered a bad omen if an owl hoots near you day or night.” These beliefs have also crossed over into Latino culture where there are stories of owls being associated with witches. In Owl Dance, my character Fatemeh is seen as a witch precisely because of her association with owls.

This brings us to my latest novel, The Astronomer’s Crypt. astronomers-crypt-453x680 In Apache lore, there’s a creature known by many names including Big-Owl, Owl Man, or even Owl Monster. He’s something of a bogeyman in Apache stories. Sometimes he’s described as more human like and other times as more monster like. He often appears in the Apache Creation story, such as the version recorded in this post on Noah Nez’s Native Skeptic blog.

When I came upon descriptions of Big Owl, I began to wonder what a real creature that could have aspects of man, owl, and troll would be like. Of course, evidence suggests that birds are the modern dinosaurs. Thinking about the dinosaurs that became owls went a long way to picturing this kind of creature. The protagonist, Mike Teter, has the following vision in the novel’s prologue:

    On the dome floor, next to the telescope, stood a grotesque figure resembling an unholy merging of a predatory dinosaur and some kind of alien creature from a sci-fi movie. Its body crouched atop long talons that looked as though they could easily rip the tiles from the floor. The creature’s nose consisted of two slits above a sharp, beak-like mouth. But it was the eyes that froze Mike in terror. Dark. Mesmerizing. They were like black holes in space. Mike had no idea where the creature had come from or how it managed to get into the dome. But he did know one thing for certain. It wanted to kill him.

To see more of what happens with Big Owl, be sure to pick up a copy of The Astronomer’s Crypt from Amazon, Kobo, or Lachesis Publishing. You can learn more about the Clockwork Legion series by visiting my website.