William H. Johnson

Archive for the ‘Inspiration’ Category

Visiting “The Set” of a Desert Love Story

In Inspiration, writing tips on April 14, 2011 at 11:59 am

One of the biggest differences between the two main projects I’m juggling is the setting. My small town love story is set in the present day on earth and the the sequel to THE DARK PROVINCE is set in a fantasy world out of our reach. To stretch this contrast even more, the world of my small town love story is modeled after a town just 35 minutes east of where I live—on the edge of the southeastern California desert. The cool thing about this is that it allows me to visit on occasion to gain inspiration. Of course everything I describe in my work is imagined however there is something amazing about physically standing on “the set” and imagining where my characters walk, play, and work.

Here are a few photos from a recent visit that I thought would be enlightening to share and give a breath of how this type of visit can generate inspiration.

“There’s something about a town where stores most people would recognize are far and few between.”

The road into town begins with a secluded drive off the interstate. One of the things I love most about this town, like so many small towns around the world, is that nobody’s heard of it. Consider the energy of that; consider what that can represent. There is a sense of privacy inherent in a story set in a place that a relative few have heard of or been to. It can feed a sense of intimacy and at the same time a sense of isolation for the characters. This being a love story about childhood friends that come of age a little late in their lives, I get the benefit of both.

“He chose the mountains that rose toward the sky beyond the town to anchor his frustration and let the words come to him.”

This mountain range guides your drive into town and hovers above the flat desert city. It can be seen from virtually anywhere you stand giving the tiny community an even greater feeling of being hidden. The mountains feel like the walls of a fortress keeping its secrets. In the summer they are bold, arid structures of stone that rise from the desert floor. In the winter they are dressed in green and at times adorned with a misting of fresh snow in the highest elevations.

“If you haven’t played the game of basketball in desert heat, you haven’t truly played the game. The sun nearly scolds your brow and the concrete is like the devil on your shins.”

The main characters, Carlton and Libby, are childhood friends. They’ve spent a great amount of their adolescence right here on this basketball court in the town’s main park. There is nothing glamorous here. Dusty desert soil covers the edges; there are no lines on the backboard. The rims don’t always have nets on them. Glamour, however, never measures how much a place can be called home.

“Morgan’s taxi turned onto Main Street where her glad eyes welcomed more of the same—an antique mall that was less like a mall and more like a pair of Siamese storefronts.”

These antique shops are the centerpiece of the main thoroughfare through the old part of town. They are part of an ensemble of unique, locally owned storefronts that welcome Morgan to town. She is the most significant supporting character, and the lone outsider in the story. With her comes a more objective viewpoint of the setting. I feel that her appreciation for the community’s hidden quality helps to seal off the outside world and reveal its true warmth.

“Do you miss her? I mean, outside of the saintly stuff—do you ever just wish she was still right there at home where you could go and talk to her?”

Estelle “Stella” Trubaker, Carlton’s mother, is something of a town legend. She died when he was eight. Stella was the founder of a children’s home located in the old part of town. With Libby having grown up in that home, Stella is the most intimate thing that she and Carlton share in common. But their memory of the saintly woman differs greatly. While Libby remembers Stella clearly—her face, her voice, the old soul songs she used sing to herself during visits to the home—Carlton has no memory of her at all.

Whether you build your world from scratch, chose a distant land you’ve never visited, or your own hometown you’ve spent most of your life in, choosing a setting is one of the purest joys a writer gets to experience. If it’s based on a nearby town that intrigues you, consider a day trip or even spending a night (I’ve done that too!). If it isn’t nearby, search the internet for pictures from the city or town. If it doesn’t exist on this earth but instead a fantasy world, you can still search online for architecture in real life or fantasy art that you feel a connection to.

Happy location scouting!


Traveling Scribe Series: Chincoteague, VA

In Inspiration on February 9, 2010 at 2:03 pm

This is the second entry in my “Traveling Scribe” Series about my favorite places to go for inspiration.


This month’s spot: Chincoteague, Virginia

Most people I meet only know it from the 1947 Newberry honored novel “Misty of Chincoteague” and the wild ponies that inhabit nearby Assateauge Island, a National Park. It’s actually a small coastal island town off the Eastern Shore of Virginia. Lodging can be found in a number of small hotels, cabins or even furnished trailers that some folks will rent out.  It’s great if you’re looking for a place where you can feel completely removed from anything remotely urban and be close to an authentic natural habitat.

One of the things I love so much about Chincoteague is the drive in. It doesn’t matter where you’re coming from, urban density will disperse and be overtaken by open land. Chincoteague takes a little bit from rural America, adds to that a healthy portion of reverence for nature and then wraps it all up with a little maritime nostalgia. It’s the small bay you cross on the way in, the short narrow streets, the smell of the nearby Atlantic along with feel of the cool humidity on your skin that truly lift you off the mainland into the arms of this hidden gem.

Whenever I’m in a setting like this I like to stay up late at night writing. I find strength and peace in the quiet. I can feel that I’m one of the few people up and about—it’s as if the community offers the whole of its creative energy to me since virtually every other soul has left theirs unattended and available when they laid down to rest. I highly recommend Chincoteague Island for your next writer retreat. Even if you happen to live close by, plan on spending a night to take advantage the late evening’s call to creativity.

Traveling Scribe Series: Hermosa Beach, CA

In Inspiration on December 30, 2009 at 12:01 am

I love to travel. Love it. I find that it offers my creative base a breath of fresh air, provides a new perspective, and reinvigorates my passion for storytelling.

I don’t just mean to London, Tokyo, or Bombay.  Travel can mean going to a town a half hour from your home – a little spot barely on the map with an old 1950’s diner you’ve passed a billion times on your way home from a road trip and always wanted to stop for coffee and explore the mood and ambiance there.

This series is about my favorite places to go for inspiration.  Many may surprise you…


This month’s spot: Hermosa Beach, California

Hermosa is a tiny beach city along the southern coastline of Los Angeles County.  It’s about a half hour south of Downtown L.A. Pier avenue, one if its main thoroughfares, is typically alive with foot traffic heading to the various bars, restaurants and shops that line the walking promenade by the sand.  The entire western border of the city is part of the extensive pacific coastline. The “Strand” as it’s called, is essentially a concrete boardwalk frequented heavily by roller-bladers (as well as cyclists and pedestrians) – sometimes you can even catch one gliding by the water after midnight.

What I love about Hermosa is how its lively social energy is tucked so tightly against the vast ocean. If you walk across the sand and sit by the water’s edge, the thunder of the waves will fill your thoughts and mute the light of festivity that usually flickers well into the evening. On a night when the moon is full, its rays reflect off the surface of the water making the air so bright you feel as though you’re indoors, especially when the wind is calm and the temperature outside is in the 70’s.

Sitting on that beach between dimly lit beachfront property and the calm ocean that appears never-ending along with the soft hints of the city’s night life just down the strand – it gives you the feeling that you’re seated at a great crossroads between the human spirit of carefree play and all that we find mysterious.  It calls out to your imagination and beckons you to draw your own conclusions about the world, and in doing so nurtures the creative spirit and gives it life.

Moments of Inspiration: “Hotel California”

In Inspiration on December 23, 2009 at 1:59 am

The patient sound of his lone acoustic crept across the open plaza, along the sidewalks and into the street.  The song was familiar and so was the hollowness of the soul that strummed the strings.  There was no cup or hat at his feet nor signs requesting donation.  Just a man, his guitar, and a desire to play a desired song.

He didn’t sing aloud, though I did in my thoughts:

On a dark desert highway, cool wind in my hair – warm smell of colitas rising up through the air…

Indeed night had long fallen but this was no remote highway.  This was downtown San Diego, California – the Gaslamp Quarter.

The distant scent of ocean waves crashing upon a nearby beach swirled around me offering intermittent reminders that the kitchen at the nearby Hard Rock Café was still open.  Despite all there was to taste and smell, my senses gave all their earnings to my ears just to bear honest witness to the author of the evening’s mood.

I wasn’t alone.  Others had stopped what they were doing to listen.  Some, like me, stood on the corner of 5th Avenue and L Street, appreciating his work from a small distance.  Some stood on the sidewalk across 5th. Others joined him on the plaza, listening from benches near to him.  Some were alone, others in pairs or a small group.  Even the massive convention center with all its modern boasts paused to inhale this precious piece of human nostalgia.

In a mere moment, a small concrete plain – littered with modern monuments, the area’s most sought after shops and restaurants, even a throughway for the city’s trolley system – was transformed into an intimate lounge with plush couches in which we could all lean back and savor this last song before closing time.

Perhaps those around me were regulars, but this was my first visit to this particular den.  I was grateful for the music man, his guitar and his willingness to play for us.

Such a lovely place…such a lovely place…

Writing Heaven

In Inspiration, Motivational on December 8, 2009 at 11:56 pm

I wrote my very first short story in a high school writing class.  It was about a mother who lost everything she had: her husband, her child, and eventually her own life only to have it all returned to her upon ascending into heaven. It was kind of a Job-ish tale only without the God and Satan characters jawing at each other like old poker buddies.

Oddly, I described heaven as a vast, open ballroom where multitudes of people could mingle and dance freely.  It was a space quite different from the world I knew then – a place ruled by restriction and restraint, and the Word of God took a back seat to the Word of Should:

You’re a Christian: You should do this, you should think like this, you should believe only what this says and should never want that.

You’re black: Man, you should talk like this, you should act like that, you should be friends with them, and stay away from her.

You’re smart: You should want to be this, you should be good at that, you should focus on being this so you can have all these things.

Even as an adult writer living on my own, the great Word of Should loomed over my work like a guardian, applying miniature electric shocks whenever I would wander into taboo territory.

You’re a Christian: You’re writing should reflect our values.

You’re black: You’re work should reflect our struggle.

You’re smart: Hello? GET A REAL JOB!

Despite the peer pressure (that is, me pressuring me), I began developing in 2003 the work that would one day be my first novel – ironically – a tale of a man who must defy his religion to honor his faith.

Little did I know as I completed those first character sketches and imagined a new world to set them in, I was entering my own ballroom.  And when I wrote that first manuscript in 2006; longhand, in pencil, on cheap spiral notebooks, and completely out of chronological order, a slow dance had begun.

Don’t be afraid to wait for fulfillment while pursuing your dream with your whole heart.  A well nurtured dream can outlast its critics and decriers, even when those critics are you and you.

I am roughly two months from the independent release of my first novel.  I’m not only proud of the writing, I’m grateful for the dance as well.