The Earliest Sunsets

With winter solstice just a little over two weeks away, I have long working nights at Kitt Peak National Observatory. In fact, this week we’re having the earliest sunsets of the year, which means rushed dinners before heading out to observe for the night. The nights will continue to get a little longer through the solstice itself, but next week, the sunsets will start being a little later. I always consider that a big milestone. Not only do I get a little more time for dinner, but it tells me the holidays are just around the corner.

So far, this week has involved imaging with the One-Degree Imager at the WIYN telescope, so we’ve been taking a lot of long exposures of distant objects. This has allowed me time to work on my final read-through of the current draft of The Astronomer’s Crypt. I hope to return the novel to my editor this weekend if all goes well.

The Astronomer’s Crypt is told from the perspective of a telescope operator like me, who works at night alongside visiting astronomers from all around the country. However, I do note in the novel that observatories require a lot of support from people who work during the day. As it turns out, there’s a great video which looks at Mike Hawes, the daytime facilities supervisor here at Kitt Peak and the great job he does:

The observatory in The Astronomer’s Crypt is smaller than Kitt Peak, as such the staff is a bit smaller. In the novel, the character Jerome Torres does for the fictional Carson Peak Observatory some of the job Mike does for Kitt Peak, but he also does some of the job my boss, Dick Joyce does.

One of the challenges of a novel like The Astronomer’s Crypt which is based on my career in a selective and competitive profession such as astronomy is to create characters who are not exact analogs of people I know. I want to highlight what makes an observatory a great place to work, and depict professional people like Mike Hawes, but I also want to accurately portray some of the more, shall we say challenging and colorful personality types I’ve worked with as well.

I start by thinking about a person and their circumstances. The character Jerome Torres is an Apache who worked his way through college. He’s a serious guy who appreciates his heritage, but also finds science fascinating. When you read the book, I hope you won’t read about Jerome Torres and think he’s just Mike Hawes rewritten. Instead, I hope you’ll believe that he’s a different guy believably doing a similar job with his own style.

By the same token, you’ll meet some characters who feel superior to others, have vices, and succumb to temptations. None of these people are based on specific people I know. That said, I have known people over the years who have those personality traits. More than a few of them have also worked in astronomy.

In the dedication to It, Stephen King writes, “Kids, fiction is the truth inside the lie…” In The Astronomer’s Crypt I hope I have told a thrilling lie while at the same time telling the truth about a field I love.