Visiting Marceline

My family’s story has been an important inspiration for my novels. My first novel, The Pirates of Sufiro, was a science fiction tale inspired by my mom’s family of Texas and New Mexico pioneers. Learning more about their history led me to write more directly about the wild west in my Clockwork Legion steampunk novels.

When people learn about my interest in genealogy, they often ask me if I’ve taken on of the many DNA tests that are currently on the market. While I think that would be interesting and it’s something I’d like to do, it’s a fairly low priority. Some of that is because of I know the limitations of DNA testing. For example, some genes are passed along patriarchal lines and others are only passed along matriarchal lines. What’s more, genetic markers are based on statistical samples. For example, 80% of Scottish people may show a given genetic marker while 70% of people from Africa may have another genetic marker. So these tests are based on statistical samples rather than absolute measurements. Most of all, DNA doesn’t tell me much, if anything, about the day-to-day lives of my ancestors, which is the stuff that makes good story fodder.

In my recent travels, I paid a visit to Marceline, Missouri. The town is probably most famous as the hometown of Walt Disney. However, I went to pay my respects to my great great grandfather, Paul Teter. I knew he was a veteran of the Civil War and I also knew he was Marceline’s first Justice of the Peace. He was also the father of my great grandmother Montana and her sister Arizona, who I wrote about two years ago. While in Marceline, I paid a visit to the Carnegie Library, which has a depository of newspaper articles and genealogy resources. It proved to be a real treasure trove.

The Carnegie Library’s collection is fabulous. They’ve indexed their newspaper collections, which makes searching them easy. I soon found stories about weddings my great great grandfather officiated over, often having the families over at his house. I learned about his career as a “police judge.” Today, most jurisdictions would refer to the position as a “magistrate judge.” I also found two items of note in the “City and Vicinity” column of the Marceline Mirror dated February 9, 1906. The third paragraph reports that “Mrs. Paul Teter fell and sustained a sprained ankle that disabled her for many days.” A sad bit of news indeed. Two paragraphs below that, we learn, “Elias Disney, of Chicago, is in the city with the expectation of locating on a farm near this place.” The farm is the one Walt Disney grew up on and where he lay under the family’s famous dreaming tree. A DNA test wouldn’t have given me that little connection and I never would have seen the town that is said to have inspired Main Street at the Disney parks.

While searching through the genealogy records at the Carnegie Library in Marceline, I also came across a memory shared by Arizona Teter’s son. He noted that Paul Teter owned a book and stationary store located on the street above. One of his most famous customers was young Walt Disney who would choose a book and sit reading in the window seat until the store closed. Arizona remembered that his favorite book was Robinson Crusoe. There’s something pretty amazing to learn that my great great grandparents contributed to Walt Disney’s love of adventure fiction. I don’t know quite where this research will lead me, but I’m sure it will inspire more stories in the future.

The Pointing Dance

This week, I have been engaged in an important, albeit tedious activity at the WIYN 3.5-meter telescope. I have been building pointing maps. Telescopes are large, bulky machines that have to point with extreme precision and track the almost literal clockwork motion of the sky. They are engineered carefully, but like any machine they are subject to wear and tear. What’s more, to keep getting the best science, telescopes have to be upgraded from time to time. This changes the telescope’s behavior with time.

The WIYN Telescope ready for a night of collecting pointing data

Because the Earth turns constantly, the sky overhead appears to move at a constant rate. To keep objects in the telescope’s field of view, the earliest telescopes were literally mounted to clocks that moved at the sky’s rate. To make these work, you have to imagine a line in the sky that’s a projection of the Earth’s equator. Then you have to tilt your tracking axis to be at the same angle as that imaginary line in the sky. Another way to think about it is that here at Kitt Peak National Observatory, we’re at 32 degrees north latitude, so you have to tilt your telescope 32 degrees up from the southern horizon to track the sky.

Now, if you look at the photo of the WIYN Telescope above, you’ll notice that it’s mounted flat to the floor and it’s not tipped to match our latitude. That’s because it’s expensive to engineer big heavy telescopes so they can be tipped up at an angle. So, the WIYN telescope actually has to track the sky in two axes: azimuth and elevation, kind of like a radar mount. To track the sky, we have to use computers to adjust the tracking rates constantly. The computers only know how fast to track in each axis if they know where we’re pointing in the sky. If there’s an error in pointing, there’s also an error in tracking.

When I tell people I’m a writer and an astronomer who operates telescopes, it’s often assumed that I have lots of free time on quiet nights at the telescope to write. That doesn’t happen on nights of pointing maps. Instead, it’s a busy night of pointing to a star, noting how far off it was from where we expected it and then moving on again. We do this for anywhere from 75 to 100 stars with a telescope like WIYN and the exercise takes about half the night.

The way pointing and tracking are interconnected also make me think of how I use outlines as a writer. With the telescope, we can imagine that I point to a star and correct the pointing at one spot, then let the telescope track. If the computer thinks the star will be a different point in an hour than it really will be, it will track toward that different point and it won’t follow the star. You need to know where the star really will be in an hour.

For me, an outline is like a little like a pointing map. It tells me where the plot is at point A and it tells me where I want to be once I reach point B. With the telescope, it better be pointed at the star at both points A and B. An outline is more flexible. It’s more like a guideline. I try to listen to my characters when I write my outlines and make sure that points A and B make sense for them. However, sometimes as I write, I find characters do things I didn’t quite imagine the first time. The beauty of an outline is I can change point B. The challenge is that when I do, I realize I may also have to change points C, D, and E as the plot progresses!

I’ve been having a lot of fun rewriting my novel, The Pirates of Sufiro for its 25th anniversary release. I actually wrote some of the original draft when the WIYN telescope was first being built in the 1990s. Rewriting the book is the ultimate case of writing to an outline, especially since I don’t want to change it so much that people can’t pick up older editions of the sequels and follow them. I’m expanding the story and letting my characters breathe more. I’m letting them guide me and asking if what they did entirely made sense for those characters. I’m taking them from point A to point B. Those points can’t really deviate, but I do allow myself to add points A.1, A.2, and A.3 to better explain how they moved from point A to point B.

You can read chapters from the previous edition and see how I’m following my version of a “pointing map” by following me Patreon. My site is at: http://www.patreon.com/davidleesummers

Fathers in Fact and Fiction

We’re celebrating Father’s Day a day early at my house. Tomorrow, I have to get on the road and drive to Arizona for a shift at Kitt Peak National Observatory. Alas, I didn’t get to sleep in. It’s the first day this break from work I’ve had a chance to catch up some yard work and I want to get that done before the summer heat reaches full intensity. That said, there will be a nice payoff tonight with a family barbecue.

Father’s day feels especially poignant this year since I’m now the same age my dad was when he celebrated his last father’s day. The picture shows him at his desk, working as a General Locomotive Foreman for Santa Fe Railroad and it’s very much how I remember my dad. I don’t remember how we celebrated his last father’s day. I would have been in my last weeks of middle school, or junior high as we called it then. I would have been nervous about end-of-the-year tests. I remember being excited and nervous about going to high school in just three months. I remember dad being a reassuring presence at that time. I remember discussing classes I might take and how that might influence my career. I remember thinking I might want to be a doctor.

In the fairy tale version of that story, his death might have strengthened my resolve to study cardiac medicine. In the real world, I realized I never wanted to be the one to tell people they’d lost a dear family member. It was hard enough telling my brothers he’d had a second heart attack.

Despite that, a lot of what he taught me would live on in my fiction. My best memories of my dad were on long trips we would take during summer vacations, seeing sights around the United States. The story he told me about the Civil War’s Battle of Glorietta Pass in New Mexico influenced the climactic scenes in my first novel, The Pirates of Sufiro. I’ve been revising the novel for its 25th anniversary release and I realize the character Espedie Raton reminds me of my dad. Espedie didn’t get enough time on the page in the earlier editions. I’m giving him some better scenes now.

Last weekend, I had a wonderful opportunity to Skype into the Tucson Steampunk Society’s Book Club meeting where they were discussing the novel The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter by Theodora Goss, which I recommended. Ironically, it can be seen as a tale about a group of women who had bad fathers. I was complimented on my fine daughters and told I was an example of a good father and was asked what I thought about the fathers in the book. I was horrified at the idea of fathers neglecting their daughters, or even worse, using them as experiments.

After all, one of the things my dad was great about was making time for me. Even when he worked nights, he cut sleep short to take me to school every morning, because he couldn’t be there in the afternoon. By the same token, I have to be gone for stretches of time in my observatory job, but I try to be there when I’m home. On reflection, there’s a truth about fatherhood in Goss’s novel. You can’t be there all the time. What’s more, kids are something of an experiment. You do your best to help them grow and give them what they’ll need to be good adults, but you don’t really know how well it worked until it happens.

My novel Owl Riders is the one where I drew the most on my own experiences of fatherhood. When writing Ramon Morales as a dad, I tried to be as honest as possible about the good parts of being a father and the painful parts. I wanted to show what it’s like to be there for your daughter, but to be pulled away by circumstances you can’t control. If Ramon Morales is a good dad, if I am a good dad, it’s only because I had a great example in my dad.

Adventures of the Galaxy Rangers

Back in March, I shared a post about an animated space western I remember fondly called BraveStarr about a Native American marshal on the frontier world of New Texas and the band of desperadoes he had to cope with. Responding to that post, Deby Fredericks recommended another animated space western from about the same time called Adventures of the Galaxy Rangers. I finally had a chance to watch a few episodes and I found it to be an interesting, albeit different take on the space western.

Adventures of the Galaxy Rangers is set in 2086, a century after the show’s production. The galaxy is ruled by an authoritarian regime called the Crown. However, a handful of planets have united against the Crown and have asked Earth to help them fight for freedom, in exchange, the planets united against the Crown have given humans hyperdrive technology. The human armed forces are the Bureau of Extra-Terrestrial Affairs (or BETA). The Galaxy Rangers are an elite corps of BETA operatives. Each of the four Galaxy Rangers have bionic implants that give them superhuman abilities.

The team leader is Zachary Foxx, voiced by Law and Order’s Jerry Orbach. His implant gives him super strength and he can fire energy beams from his arm. Shane Goosman, or simply “Goose,” is modeled on Clint Eastwood. His implant allows him to adapt to dangerous conditions. Niko has some limited psychic abilities and her implants enhance that ability. She also has a limited ability to “communicate” with machines. Walter “Doc” Hartford rounds out the Galaxy Rangers. His implants give him direct control with numerous mobile AIs who can interact with computers and gather information.

Whereas BraveStarr was a literal western set in space, Adventures of the Galaxy Rangers reminds me more of Joss Whedon’s show Firefly, where there is a lot of high tech, but frontier worlds are primitive and look like the old west simply because of limited supplies. There are considerable numbers of alien races and factions including criminal gangs and space pirates. The show is best when it creates a serious situation for one or more of the rangers to deal with and lets them solve the problems posed by the situation.

It seems like it took a few episodes for the writers to hit their stride and find a good storytelling formula. Early episodes in particular seemed to break out of action and give us some “cartoon humor” such as when a space pirate captain does a spit take and his minion pops an umbrella out his headgear to keep from getting drenched. It’s cute but it does pull you out of the action and doesn’t really fit the tone of the series as it ultimately developed.

One interesting aspect of the series is that it’s an early collaboration between an American production company and a Japanese animation studio. This kind of collaboration would pave the way for some truly great series such as Avatar: The Last Airbender. The animation studio is the same one that would go on to create the groundbreaking Akira. As a result, the series has something of an anime feel. What’s more, the voice director was Peter Fernandez who voiced the American dub of Speed Racer. Corinne Orr who voiced Trixie in Speed Racer voices the Queen of the Crown in Adventures of the Galaxy Rangers.

What is odd is to realize that BraveStarr and Adventures of the Galaxy Rangers both came out within a year of each other in the mid 1980s. It’s hard to say what drove the interest in animated space westerns. The only thing I can see is the release of both Silverado and Pale Rider in 1985, which revived an interest in westerns generally, but I can’t remember either film having a strong appeal with young people at the time. Galaxy Rangers also clearly takes a lot of influence from Star Wars. Some ships resemble X-wing fighters. A space pirate has a laser sword and a village of primitives resembles the Ewok village from Return of the Jedi.

Even though BraveStarr was the show that influenced me when I first wrote my novel The Pirates of Sufiro some 25 years ago, I strove to make the space western elements more realistic as they are in Adventures of the Galaxy Rangers. However, my science fiction influences were shows like Star Trek and Star Blazers along with the writing of authors like Ray Bradbury and Robert A. Heinlein. One thing that causes Galaxy Rangers to show its age is the very 1980s power ballad soundtrack. I was more influenced by the Texas blues of ZZ Top when I wrote Pirates.

Like BraveStarr, I’m hard pressed to recommend binge watching the entirety of Adventures of the Galaxy Rangers in one go, but if you like space westerns, watching at least a few is a fun way to spend an evening or two. If you want to help me revise The Pirates of Sufiro for its 25th anniversary, sign on at my Patreon site: http://www.patreon.com/davidleesummers.

Setting Mini-Goals

Earlier this week, I received a question here at the Web Journal about how I manage to post so frequently. I gave an answer in the comments, but the more I thought about it, the more I thought a little more insight into my time management process might prove helpful to some people. What’s more, talking about goals seems timely with high school and college graduation season upon us. Of course most commencement speakers raising the subject of goals will likely talk about long-term career or personal development goals. They may talk about goals for the next year or two. What I’d like to discuss are how I turn those longer term goals into more manageable daily goals.

Three of my goals for this year are to revise my novel The Pirates of Sufiro for its 25th anniversary release, edit the novel Battle Lines by Greg Ballan, and post an update to my blog every Saturday and Tuesday. These aren’t my only goals for the year, but these are three projects I’m working on right now.

The first thing that helps me turn a big yearly goal into a more manageable weekly or daily goal is to set deadlines. Deadlines for the blog posts are defined by the fact they have to go live by Saturday or Tuesday morning. Fortunately, WordPress lets me write posts in advance and schedule them. This allows me more flexibility for when I actually write my posts as long as they are written before the deadline.

Deadlines for The Pirates of Sufiro are defined by my promise to my Patreon subscribers that I will deliver at least one revised chapter every month. I know it takes about three to four days to revise a chapter at a nice, easy pace that also allows me to answer email, take a walk, and spend time with my family. By contrast, I only have one “hard” deadline for Battle Lines and that’s the fact that I want it out by November so it’s available at our dealer’s table at the TusCon Science Fiction Convention and available for holiday orders.

In effect, these three goals form part of a to-do list. Other things that go on the to-do list might include daily chores like making dinner, taking out the trash, answering email, or paying bills. With the to-do list in hand, what I do most mornings is to ask myself a question: What do I need to accomplish to make this day a success? The answer will be a list of mini-goals. These may be simple “to-do” items like: mow the grass, write a blog post, make dinner, and take a walk. It could be: revise two scenes of The Pirates of Sufiro, take my daughter out to practice driving, and review a presentation for the next convention. When I look at a project like Battle Lines, I may see how many days I have in the next two to three weeks to devote to editing, then simply divide up the pages among them, so that I have a manageable chunk to edit every day. The specifics are as individual to you as they are to me. The important part is to set manageable mini-goals for myself each day that help me move toward the larger goals.

I like to reward myself when I reach my goals for the day. A typical reward might be to watch a movie from my collection, or read a couple chapters from a book. If I reach a milestone, the family and I might go out to dinner. When I don’t reach my goals, I try not to let disappointment get me down. After all, life happens and sometimes something demands my attention that I didn’t plan for such as a flat tire or an unexpected, urgent email. If I didn’t meet my goals, I try to look back at the day objectively. Did I set too many mini-goals? Did something unavoidable happen? If it’s the latter, I may start my list over again the next day.

If you have any additional tips for organizing your time, feel free to share them in the comments. I’d love to hear them.

If you want to check out my Patreon site, it’s at: http://www.patreon.com/davidleesummers. As I say, if you pledge a dollar each month, you’ll get to read each new chapter of The Pirates of Sufiro as its revised. What’s more, another goal I’ve set is to remove the ads from this blog. Your support at my Patreon site can help to make that happen.

Tending to Busy-ness

I read an interesting article on the New York Times website about a week and a half ago that suggested that being perpetually busy has become something of a status symbol. I can see that. I know a lot of successful and ambitious people and judging from our conversations and their social media feeds, they are in demand and on the go and they like to talk about how they are in demand and on the go. The article also suggests that there’s a danger in people becoming too busy, that we need to allow some idleness to creep into our lives. As someone who has two careers, one in astronomy and one in writing, the article definitely spoke to me.

Presenting a talk at the Astronomical Society of Las Cruces

I see this attitude of equating busy-ness with status and success starting in school days. My daughters were and are encouraged to participate in as many extracurricular activities as possible, partly with the justification that listing them on college applications would make them more appealing to those institutions. For that matter, I was told much the same thing back in the days when I applied for college.

I feel like this attitude of busy-ness being a status symbol is easily exploited by the powers that be. I won’t go so far as to say there has been any kind of conspiracy on the part of business owners to make this environment happen, but the powers that be are often quite adept at exploiting and encouraging trends that function to their benefit. After all, if being busy is a status symbol, it makes it easier for an employer to ask an employee to take a larger work load for no added benefit, other than the benefit of the status the employee gains from being busier. In all fairness, there can be benefit from this, a busier-looking employee might be the one looked at first for promotion, as long as that busy-ness produces results and is recognized.

The New York Times article extolled the virtues of idleness. It suggested that true idle time where are thoughts are not directed are important to both creativity and productivity and we are in some danger of not allowing ourselves enough idle time. I would certainly agree that when I don’t take enough idle time for myself, I have a hard time coming up with ideas for my writing or being at my best on my astronomy job. Over the years, I’ve learned the importance of getting eight hours of sleep in a 24-hour cycle (at least as close to eight hours as my work life allows. That can be a challenge at the observatory in winter!) I also find it’s important to have quiet time each day just to let my mind wander and daydream. When the weather’s cooperative, I often combine this with a walk through my neighborhood. This way my mind not only gets some idle time, but I’m doing something healthy as well! At any rate, these daydreams often lead me to story ideas. About the time I’ve become bored with the wanderings, is about the time I feel compelled to sit down at the keyboard and write.

Twenty-five years ago, when I was writing The Pirates of Sufiro, and before being busy was a status symbol in its own right, I wrote a scene where Manuel Raton, the son of a farmer and a bit of a dreamer, was speaking to Sam Stone who aspired to be a powerful businessman. Manuel chided Sam for not taking enough time to relax and explore the world around him. He said he didn’t want to turn into the kind of person who was all work and no play. Somehow that seems like it’s become a timely scene. That’s one of the reasons I’m working on a new edition of the novel. If you want to see the updated chapters as they’re rewritten and also help me reach the goal of making this an ad-free blog, you can support my Patreon campaign at http://www.patreon.com/davidleesummers.

BraveStarr

Earlier this month, at the Wild Wild West Steampunk Convention, I was on a panel called “Space Cowboys” where we explored the title subject. In the panel, I suggested that the TV series BraveStarr was perhaps the purest expression of the idea of the space cowboy.

BraveStarr was Filmation Studios’ last fully developed series to reach the airwaves. I grew up watching Filmation series. Among my favorites were Star Trek: The Animated Series and Flash Gordon. Both respected the source material and presented it accurately within the limits imposed by television executives at the time the series were produced. BraveStarr was an original project that came out during my graduate school years. I remember catching some episodes after a long day of classes while eating a hasty dinner and getting ready for a night of homework.

BraveStarr tells the story of two factions on a planet dubbed New Texas who battle for control of a rare mineral called kerium, which can be refined as a fuel. One faction was composed of legitimate settlers attempting to stake their claims and mine the mineral legally. The other was controlled by an alien creature who seems like a hybrid between a bull and a dragon named Stampede. Stampede wants to run the settlers off and take all the kerium for himself. In the middle of the two factions are the planet’s natives, the Ewok-like Prairie People.

The townspeople petition the Galactic Marshal’s Service to send them a team of officers to bring law and order to New Texas. They send Marshal BraveStarr and Judge JB McBride. In a nifty subversion of western tropes, Marshal BraveStarr is a handsome Native American and Judge McBride is a Scottish woman with a temper. Over the course of the series there’s much tension between the two, both romantic and professional. It’s never a foregone conclusion that the two are “meant” for each other, which is a nice touch in a cartoon from the 1980s.

Another way 80s tropes are subverted is with the Prairie People. They are drawn as cute, cuddly creatures and they have annoying, squeaky voices. In many cartoons of the period, characters in the show would love them and the audience would wonder why. In BraveStarr, most of the townspeople hate the annoying creatures, even though they’re among the most technically competent people on the planet, which in itself is a subversion of tropes. These are no cute primitives. The Prairie People become a great way for the series to explore issues of bias and prejudice.

Perhaps my favorite character on the show is Thirty-Thirty. He’s an alien/cyborg who resembles a terrestrial horse. He fills the good, tough-guy role in this series and often the character with the most “horse sense.” Sometimes he runs along as a horse and sometimes he’s bepedal and packs a big gun he calls Sarah Jane. I’ve often wondered if that’s a tribute to Doctor Who. Marshal BraveStarr also has a mentor, a Native American called Shaman who has magical powers and has imbued BraveStarr with some of those gifts.

As I understand, Filmation wanted to capitalize on the success of their earlier hits, He-Man and She-Ra. As in those shows, our heroes face off against a veritable rogues gallery. Stampede’s lieutenant is a zombie-like cowboy named Tex Hex. It seems to me that Hex likes to shop as the same store as another favorite animated hero of mine, Captain Harlock. Around them are an assortment of bad robots and aliens all looking to make a quick buck.

I recently purchased the DVD set shown above called “The Best of BraveStarr.” It includes the movie that was meant as the introduction to the series plus the five best episodes as selected by fans. I highly recommend the film. While silly at times, it also includes many loving tributes to classic western films along with classic science fiction. I especially love the ship that BraveStarr and JB travel to New Texas aboard. It feels like the ship Captain Nemo would use if he traveled space. There are some good tense moments in the movie and it avoids getting too preachy. I also enjoyed the romantic tension between BraveStarr and JB in the movie.

The entire 65-episode series is also available on DVD, but unless you’re a die-hard fan, the five episodes on the “Best of” disk might suffice, especially since one 80’s trope the series did not avoid was the “moral of the episode” speech at the end. What’s more, the complete series set does not include the film, which would be a shame to miss.

I can tell elements of this series seeped into my graduate student haze. It’s one of the places where I got the idea that I’d like to expand on the idea of the “space western” which I did in my own novel, The Pirates of Sufiro. You can see my take on space cowboys by subscribing to my Patreon page at: https://www.patreon.com/davidleesummers. Among other things, my Patreon also supports this blog and one of my goals is to give visitors to this blog an ad-free experience. If you have an extra dollar per month, I hope you’ll help me out and you can get some great stories as well!