For first-time novelist A.G.S. Johnson, inspiration struck like lightning and immediately slowed to a crawl.
"I was awakened one night, maybe 15 years ago, by this cocky female voice that was so intriguing to me that I jumped out of bed, literally, and I wrote as fast as I could," Johnson said, talking about the would-be foundation for her debut novel.
"It was a couple of paragraphs of what this voice was saying … So I carried this stupid piece of writing around for probably a few years. I'd take it to my writing groups, and I took it to women in writing classes I was taking at the time, and everyone said, 'Yeah, well it's interesting, but what is it?' And that was the big question, what is it?"
The answer was 24-year-old Kip Czermanski, who wears combat boots and recalls Bob Dylan lyrics in the opening passages of "The Sausage Maker's Daughters," which Johnson calls a character-driven murder mystery and courtroom drama.
"It's about real life," Johnson said.
On Monday, the Los Angeles resident visited Costa Mesa to sign copies of her book. In the Barnes & Noble at Metro Pointe, she talked about her journey to create Kip and the character's journey through Vietnam War-era Wisconsin.
The author will soon visit the Barnes & Noble stores at Bella Terra in Huntington Beach and at Fashion Island in Newport Beach to sign the stores' stock of books.
Johnson, a Chicago native, grew up in Wisconsin and still considers it home. But the Badger State and a feminist bent are two of the few things the author and her protagonist have in common.
A baby boomer just like her protagonist, Johnson lived through the '60s but says she was too young to quite grasp the antiwar movement that plays prominently in her novel.
It was a different movement that helped define her in the early parts of her life.
"I came out of college just as feminism was going mainstream," Johnson said. "I didn't take traditional family relationships very seriously at first. And when I look back that is probably my biggest embarrassing regret."
That's part of what turned her to a 20-year career in corporate banking.
"I was going to be this big powerful woman that proved a woman could do anything, and then one day I really got sick to death of the game of it. I just knew one day it was over," Johnson said. "I couldn't play the game any more."
Her exit from the industry, though, provided the opportunity to bring Kip into focus.
In January 1999 Johnson began pursuing her master's degree in fiction writing at USC, and in her first class, started fleshing out the counter-culture, feminine voice she'd been holding onto.
She added a family, a dash of sibling rivalry, the unstable national setting and a pot-boiling fight over a man.
Finally, she imposed a murder and legal accusations to throw Kip's life completely upside-down.
The works give Johnson a canvas to explore gender roles, sibling rivalry and complex character development that she says are the core of the work.
"[Kip] grows up before your eyes, and she just begins to really find out about good relationships and trust," the author said. "And that's a hopeful way to end. She just arrives there by the end of the story after a very painful process of growth."
After 12 more years of research and on-and-off writing, the book hit store shelves in February.
Johnson has moved on from Kip. Between spending time with her husband of 20 years, three step daughters and grandchildren, she's in the editing process of her second book — a medical murder mystery.
She hopes it's the next step in her literary career, which started with casual journaling and writing classes.
Thankfully for the author, Kip outlived the journaling phase, despite her midnight scratch-paper origins that even Johnson has forgotten.
"I don't have it any more. I don't remember what it was about," Johnson said. "But it was such a cocky — and brash — female that I knew instinctively that she was compensating for something. And it was that factor, that vulnerability that fear, that underlies it all that was the most intriguing thing about the voice."