Where do my ideas come from? I don't actually get asked this very often. Maybe no one really cares. But the answer fascinates me so I'm going to talk about it anyway.
I have lots of story ideas. A good dozen novels outlined and waiting to be written. Many more vague story ideas that never quite proved worthy to be put down on paper (or, actually, in a .docx file). I am confident that I'll have ideas to write about for the rest of my life. I just hope I have the opportunity to write them. Or at least the good ones. And while I'm making wishes, I hope I have to insight to pick out which are the good ones. But where do they start?
I have to admit, many of my ideas are reactionary. I read something, or watch something, that I think is not as good as it could be. I think: I could do better. It happens a lot with mainstream media. A lot of very successful and popular media is crap. I could list many examples, but don't want to offend anyone. (but here's a few that I don't have to worry about offending the authors: Moby Dick - crap; Les Miserables - crap; Catcher in the Rye - not that good). So I look at the basic idea behind it and think of how I would do it, what I would change to make it better. (yes, I realize I just said I can write a better book than Moby Dick. Time will tell :-)
My first novel was a love story. It was in response to several incredibly popular books that made true love out to be all-conquering, the only thing that mattered. That's not what I saw in my life or with my friends. It was always much more complicated than that. So I started a story with two people falling in love and then followed them for ten years as they went in and out of each others lives. Of course, I understand the appeal of the idealized true love. People want to read a fantasy - something that they haven't experienced. But it was far more interesting to me to make it complicated while keeping the core of true love the heart of the story. It was more realistic, something I could learn from something that applied to my life. Maybe I want something different out of my writing than most people want out of their reading.
Another story idea I got was in the middle of watching the Return of the King. During Aragon's battle speech near the end, the 'not this day' speech. It's not bad, but I thought I could do better. Or at least different. Sitting in the dark in the theater I came up with my own battle speech. Ultimately I created a whole novel idea around it. But when I actually started writing it, it didn't pan out. And my speech never worked. I liked the idea behind it but couldn't perfect it. (and I then went back and watched the Henry V 'St. Crispin's Day' speech and realized we are all just writing poor imitations). So sometimes trying to create a better mousetrap doesn't work and it's time to get out of the mousetrap business.
But I also get ideas from the great things, things I like. Books that are far better than anything I hope to write (see, I do have some humility), movies and legends that have lasted through the ages. Another of my stories came about from the idea of Elric of Melnibone (a GREAT character) and tracing it back to Faust. I didn't try to improve them, but look at it from a different angle. Follow the idea further in time. What happens to your anti-hero when he stops trying, stops caring about who he was in the past or about right and wrong. How do you make that interesting? That's the challenge that excited me and launched a series of stories that ultimately make my second book.
Those are reactionary ideas, but I do also come up with original ideas of my own (or so I like to tell myself). And those come to me in different ways.Sometimes it's as simple as an image. A man and woman standing by a lake in the woods as the sun sets - that led to one of my first short stories that I really liked. Sometimes it's a concept and where it would lead. The idea of a prophecy that says those who attempt it will have to die in order to succeed - who would accept such an endeavor? The idea of the first discovery of a wormhole - how would that realistically take place? Sometimes it's a character and the fun of spending time in their head. A forklift operator who becomes the god of war. A retired FBI agent who runs a fly fishing shop in Montana. These ideas come from anywhere and everywhere. All it takes is something that is interesting. Something that I can explore and play with, something that makes me want to see where it goes.
That's how it starts. Normally I just let it percolate in my head for a while. If it stays and grows, then I'll ultimately write it down to save it. If not, it will fall by the wayside. Though sometimes I'll wake up in the middle of the night and just have to write it down. Those can look bad in the morning but sometimes they are worth holding on to. So I end up with a large collection of ideas. And then I have to choose what to complete. What do I actually want to write. That's a whole other topic, but it normally comes down to my life. I write what connects the most with me in the moment, because that connection gives me the insight and knowledge necessary to bring the idea to life. That's why I like to have a sandbox full of story ideas to play with: one of them is likely to fit my need. If not, I'll just create more.
So I'd be curious to hear what inspires other people. Where do you get your ideas? Do they just pop into existence or does it take conscious work and effort? Do they start with something you like or something you don't? And once they're there, what do you do with them?