Astronomy and Wildlife

I suspect one of the last things people consider when they think about working at an observatory is encountering wildlife. However, it can be a surprisingly common part of the job. During my last shift at Kitt Peak, I had two very close encounters with wild animals, both at the room where I stay. The first happened in the afternoon when I was heading out to do my laundry. I looked over to my left and saw a bobcat walking away from me. It stopped and looked at me, then continued on its way. Unfortunately, it vanished before I could get a photo. Two days later in the morning, I heard a rustling by the garbage can near my dorm room. I turned and looked out the window and a very disgruntled bear walked by, just outside my room. I was able to get a photo of the bear just before he disappeared into the woods.

Wildlife encounters aren’t limited to the wilder areas away from the telescopes. Sometimes wildlife visits us in the control rooms. I’ve seen ringtail cats on three separate occasions in observatory control rooms. For those not familiar with ringtails, they’re not actually cats, but a member of the raccoon family that lives in the desert southwest. One time, we saw a ringtail in the control room of the WIYN 3.5-meter telescope. He peered out at us through a hole in the ceiling tiles. Another time, I was working at the 2.1-meter telescope when a ringtail jumped out of the ceiling, landed by a computer, growled at us, and then disappeared into a conduit. Another time I looked over and saw a ringtail in the control room of the Mayall 4-meter telescope, peering out from behind a garbage can. This was especially remarkable, since the console room for the 4-meter is some twelve stories above the ground. As the observer and I were trying to figure out what to do about the animal, it disappeared down a conduit never to be seen again.

Famous astronomers are not immune from wildlife encounters. I once heard a story that Clyde Tombaugh, the astronomer who discovered Pluto, had finished observing one night at Lowell Observatory and was walking to his room in the dark. He saw what he thought was a dog and held out his hand to pet it. The animal backed away, growling. The next morning, a caretaker spoke to Tombaugh and said he’d seen some strange tracks in the snow. It appeared that someone had approached a mountain lion very closely!

Encounters like this helped to inspire a scene in The Astronomer’s Crypt where the telescope operator, Mike, encounters a raccoon at the telescope. I won’t give more details than that to avoid spoilers for the scene, but it’s the kind of reality from my day-to-day life at the observatory that I’ve tried to inject into the novel. You can learn more about the novel at http://www.davidleesummers.com/Astronomers-Crypt.html. And remember, you can learn about all of my books and short stories by visiting http://www.davidleesummers.com

Meet Mike and Claire

This past weekend, I’ve been working on a book trailer for my novel, The Astronomer’s Crypt. To make this trailer, I’ve been collaborating with actor, director, and producer Eric Schumacher, who played Wyatt Earp in the Fox Network TV series, Legends and Lies: The Real West.

Over the years, I’ve seen a lot of book trailers. Some are more successful than others. I’ve even made a few using graphics provided by the wonderful artists who worked on my covers. For this trailer, Eric and I wanted to kick it up a notch, and make a more cinematic trailer featuring a scene from the novel. Eric is playing telescope operator Mike Teter and Sara Mirasola is playing astronomy graduate student Claire Yarbro. Here’s a sneak peak of the actors in character.

I have tried my hand at writing a couple of screenplays, and even submitted one to Star Trek: The Next Generation when it was on TV, but this marks the first time I get to see my words translated to the screen. Eric and I collaborated on the screenplay. Like most book screenplays, it’s not a word-for-word translation of what happens in the book, but we worked hard to keep the essence of one of the book’s scariest moments. As the scene opens, Mike and Claire’s dialog teases what’s been happening in the novel so far, then Mike leaves Claire alone. In the book, Claire goes through an internal monologue as she waits to find out what’s happening to the others with a few exclamations. We worked to translate enough of the words to give you a sense of what she’s thinking without giving you a Shakespearean-style monologue. I’ll leave the description there to avoid spoilers both for the book and the trailer.

The writing process started with me picking a handful of scenes I thought might be suitable. We developed one in hopes that Kitt Peak National Observatory could be a stand-in for the novel’s fictional observatory. However, that request was denied. The powers that be felt the Mayall 4-meter was just a little too recognizable and such a film would imply organizational endorsement for the project. Disappointing, but fair enough.

The new scene is set in an observatory control room, which is easier to mock up without implying institutional endorsement. So we went to one of our backup scenes. The scene I picked only had Claire. Eric roughed out a draft based on that scene, then I suggested an opening based on the previous scene where Mike and Claire are together. This allowed two actors to play off each other and set up the scene before Claire has to carry the ending alone. We then sent the script back and forth a few times. I checked for both scientific accuracy and assuring the script was true to the flavor of the book, while Eric worked to assure the scene could be filmed and actors could speak the lines.

It’s been exciting to see Eric and Sara bring Mike and Claire to life. In a future post, closer to the trailer’s release, I’ll discuss more of the technical aspects of making our short film. In the event you don’t want to wait for the trailer’s release to read the book, you can learn more about The Astronomer’s Crypt, read a sample chapter, and find places to buy the book at: http://www.davidleesummers.com/Astronomers-Crypt.html

Beautiful Sunsets

My work “day” at Kitt Peak National Observatory gets going in earnest when the sun sets. We have a saying at the observatory that beautiful sunsets mean poor observing. For better or worse, we’ve had some beautiful sunsets this past week.

There is some truth to the notion. Clouds can make dramatic sunsets, but they also obscure the view of even the most powerful optical telescopes. Red sunsets are often caused by dust or smoke in the air. Both are bad for observing in their own right. They make the sky hazy, but they can also settle out on telescope optics, which then becomes a problem when the weather gets even better. Unfortunately, big telescope optics are not easy to clean and the particulates can even damage them.

The wind that kicks up particulates or dries out the brush, giving us fire conditions, can also be a problem for observing. An unsettled atmosphere can make objects magnified with a telescope look fuzzy and distorted. It’s what we call bad “seeing.”

Nights with these kinds of poor, but not stormy conditions, can be the most difficult in my work life. We have to be ever vigilant to make sure the winds don’t get too high to safely operate the telescopes or the clouds don’t build up to ones that might drizzle. Even a little bit of water on telescope optics can ruin a telescope operator’s night. The wind can actually blow the telescopes around enough that we have a difficult time tracking targets precisely.

Our best nights are those when the sky is clear and calm at sunset. A few high clouds on the horizon aren’t ideal, but they’re not necessarily terrible. This was a sunset taken on a pretty good night.

This sunset’s pretty cool because I caught just a little of the “green flash” effect. I was just using the camera on my Kindle, so it doesn’t look as green as it did watching it, but you can see the after image of the sun just above the setting sun itself. That’s caused by atmospheric dispersion stretching the image of the sun like a prism or a rainbow. So you see the green/blue light of the sun set after the yellow light.

So, yeah, you can have pretty sunsets on good nights, too. They may just be a little less dramatic than the sunsets on the difficult nights.

If you want to see what happens when I imagine a truly dramatic night at an observatory, read my book The Astronomer’s Crypt. You can learn more about it here: http://www.davidleesummers.com/Astronomers-Crypt.html.

Like telescope operators, vampires also come out when the sun sets. I imagine a vampire telescope operator in my novel Vampires of the Scarlet Order. Read a sample chapter and learn more at: http://www.davidleesummers.com/VSO.html.

Astronomer’s Crypt Giveaway

I’m giving away two paperback copies of my latest novel The Astronomer’s Crypt on Goodreads. If you have an account, you can sign up for the giveaway at: https://www.goodreads.com/giveaway/show/232189-the-astronomer-s-crypt. If you don’t have an account, all you need to do is sign up for one—they’re free—then follow the link to enter the giveaway. You can enter the giveaway until May 1, at which point, Goodreads will pick the winners and I’ll send out the books.

The back of the book warns, “If you scare easily, don’t read this book. If you dare to read it, you’ve been warned.”

In this novel, gangsters, scientists, ghosts, and a monster from the beginning of time collide on a mountaintop during a raging storm. As you can likely tell, from this, May Day is an appropriate day to hold the drawing for this book. Wishing all those who enter the best of luck!

If you’d like to learn more about the novel, I discuss it and even share an excerpt at a brand new interview by Fiona Mcvie, which was just posted this week: https://authorsinterviews.wordpress.com/2017/04/16/here-is-my-interview-with-david-lee-summers/

In case you missed it, the novel’s protagonist, telescope operator Mike Teter was interviewed at the Lisa Burton Radio Show Blog: https://coldhandboyack.wordpress.com/2017/02/09/the-astronomers-crypt-on-lisa-burton-radio/

This week I had my first glimpse at the interior pages of the forthcoming anthology Straight Outta Tombstone, due for release at the beginning of July. This was my chance to review the proofs for my story, a responsibility I take seriously. I’m pleased to say that I saw no typos in my story. Of course, this doesn’t mean an eagle-eyed reader won’t spot something I missed, but it does look quite good. I did request a change to one line for clarification.

It’s exciting to be in a book alongside so many people whose work I’ve admired for years, including Jim Butcher, Kevin J. Anderson, Jody Lynn Nye, and Phil Foglio. What’s more, there are a few veterans from my anthologies and magazines on these pages including Robert E. Vardeman and Nicole Givens Kurtz. My story in the anthology pits the Scarlet Order Vampires against members of the Clockwork Legion during the historical Albert Fountain disappearance. Learn more about the anthology and pre-order it here: https://www.amazon.com/dp/1481482696/

Nightmare Scenarios

As a horror and science fiction writer, one of my jobs is to concoct nightmare scenarios and present them as realistically as possible for your entertainment. In my new novel The Astronomer’s Crypt, I had great fun imagining anything and everything that could go wrong on a night at a remote observatory. I imagine everything from a dangerous storm, to people being hurt by the large machinery we have, to strangers who might appear on the mountain. I even imagine ghosts and an even more terrifying monster. As it turns out, I actually do work at an observatory, and one of my jobs is to make sure visiting astronomers stay safe. One of my duties is to give a safety presentation where I warn people about dangers they might face in an observatory environment. This includes staying away from areas where they could be hurt by machinery, watching for areas that are known to be slippery, and taking care if they go outside in strong winds. The safety presentation doesn’t include ghosts and terrifying monsters, because although I can imagine those things—have even had moments where I wondered if ghosts might exist—they have never done me, or anyone else at the observatory, any harm.

I’ve been thinking about this recently in light of some of the recent politics in the United States. In many ways, it’s the job of legislators and the executive branch to imagine every nightmare scenario possible. However, their job is more like mine as a telescope operator than my job as a horror writer. They should look at the reasonable and creditable threats to people’s health and security, act on them where necessary and give people appropriate cautions. The scary part to me is that the current administration is acting like the worst kind of horror writer in that they have been presenting absolutely every scary thing they can imagine, whether or not it’s reasonable. For example, the recent travel ban on several predominantly Muslim countries feels like it would be as responsible as me telling visiting astronomers to avoid every Latino they might meet on the mountain because a suspected illegal immigrant once pulled a knife on a couple of staff members, then ran away. Yes, there are scary people and there are desperate people, but they are rarely scary and desperate because of their skin color or nation of origin.

SummersLightningWolves

This line of thought takes an interesting turn, because in my Clockwork Legion novels Owl Dance and Lightning Wolves, I imagine Russians coming to America and influencing people to support them with the help of an alien swarm called Legion. Of course, there have been allegations that the Russians attempted to influence the most recent American election and there might have been improper contact between Executive Branch officials and members of the Russian government. In the worst case, this could be a serious nightmare for America and is plausible enough to deserve serious inquiry, yet this nightmare scenario is regularly replaced with worries that a transgender person might be in the stall next to your daughter at school.

Of course, perhaps the greatest nightmare scenario of all would be living in a United States where people are not allowed to question the President and the press are barred from open inquiry. I would rather face the worst nightmares of The Astronomer’s Crypt than live in that world.

The Astronomer’s Crypt Available in Paperback

I am pleased to announce that my novel of ghouls, ghosts, and gangsters colliding on a dark and stormy night at an astronomical observatory with only scientists and engineers to stop them is now available in paperback as well as ebook.

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As it turns out, 2017 marks the tenth anniversary of the release of Amazon’s Kindle e-reader. Sony’s Libre e-reader was released four years before that. Since that time, various apps have allowed people to read books on their favorite mobile devices whether phone or tablet. In that time, the media that reports on the publishing industry has regularly reported on the “war” between e-publishing and print publishing.

I’ve always considered this notion of a “war” between the two formats to be ridiculous. E-books are just another way for books to be available to readers. In fact, from my perspective as a reader, I like having both formats available. Which format I buy depends on a number of factors ranging from how unwieldy the print edition is, whether I’ll be reading while traveling, whether I might meet the author and want the book signed, and yes, price can be a factor in my decision as well.

In my experience as an author, publisher, and book vendor, I’ve found having both paperback and ebook editions are critical to a book’s success. In fact, even for those titles where ebooks outsell paper editions, I find displaying paper editions at conventions will encourage sales of the ebook editions. This hardly seems like a war to me, but a strong alliance!

Because of that, I’m pleased that my publisher is able to make the book available in a number of ebook formats as well as paperback, but do remember, in whichever version you buy, my publisher has the following disclaimer:

    If you scare easily, don’t read this book.
    If you dare to read it, you’ve been warned.

    Two years ago on a stormy night, in the dead of winter, Mike Teter experienced something that would change his life forever. Mike was a telescope operator at the world renowned Carson Peak Observatory in New Mexico. We won’t tell you what he saw that night on the mountain nor what happened afterward on a dark stretch of highway, because it would haunt you just as it has haunted Mike. But what we will tell you is that Mike is back at Carson Peak. And what he witnessed that night two years ago is about to become a reality…

The paperback edition is available at:

The ebook edition is available at:

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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