Writers are always complaining about things that people ask them, and this is one of the most cited questions. There are tons of different answers, none of which are right for everyone, or even for someone all of the time. There are just so many places to get ideas and inspiration from, and many, many methods of combining these things into something that could actually support a story.
But, because I think about this kind of stuff a lot, and becuase, like all good writers, I have more ideas than I could ever manage to use in my natural lifetime, I’ve come across an answer to this question that describes how I get ideas most of the time, and which corresponds fairly well with what many other writers have described as a common process for them.
Since I’m a writer, I’m going to tell you a little story, rather than writing a long boring essay:
Our story begins about 4 billion years ago, before there even were writers to come up with ideas in our solar system. The Sun was here, but the planets were yet to be born. A massive disc of material left over from the Sun’s formation, called the solar nebula, was as close to planets as the solar system had gotten. Much like the cultural soup that every human being inhabits, this disc was full of tiny little grains of stuff, held together by some force; in the solar nebula’s case, this force was gravity. Over time, these little dust grains began to collide with each other, and every now and then gravity would cause some to stick together, creating a larger piece with more gravity than the little pieces surrounding it. As time passes, these larger chunks collide again, their mass building and building, clearing out the space around them, until they bccame around 10 kilometers in size. These huge masses of dust and gas were called planetesimals.
The collisions continued, and these planetesimals increased in size at rates of a few centimeters per year. Just imagine all the little interesting facts and scraps of information you encounter daily. Over time, one or another begins to take on weight as you learn more things about it, and over time, it might become an opinion, or a desire. And these opinions and desires feelings and thoughts and hunks of knowledge are just like our little planetesimals. Over time, the planetismals crashed together, and snagged most of the remaining dust and bcame the planets. And each planet is like a little idea, starting from a tiny grain of thought, and gradually accumulating a mass of information and images and words, until it becomes the basis for an incredible story.
And most writers have tons and tons of these ideas orbiting them, or still forming. And because, unlike the sun, we have an infinite sea of information surronding us for our entire lives, there are always more ideas, more little thought planets forming around us. This process is called “accretion” and it’s where almost all ideas come from. For example, the first grain of the idea behind this post came from an Astronomy class I took at a community college over the summer. And then many many threads trying explain where writers got ideas began to collide, and were caught up in the gravity well of that astronomy course, until eventually there was enough mass to support and atmosphere, in which grew little tiny forms of life that finally evolved enough to smack me on the back of the head and say “Duh! Here’s where we come from!”