For me, the simplest answer is:
My brain is a very strange little thing, and it comes up with weird ideas all the time. Some ideas are half-formed and need to be thought about before they become something I can actually work with. Some are fully-formed scenes that merely need a story. Some are just an object or one sentence.
I don’t think there’s a wrong way to come up with ideas. There are probably a vast many different ways that a person can be inspired – and what inspires me might not inspire someone else.
If you’re looking for a longer answer, let’s get into detail:
Where do my ideas come from?
Dreams: I had a dream once about two people fighting, and then one of them running into a building that they knew was going to blow up. That dream became a scene, which I wanted to be the end to a story. So I tried to figure out who those people were, what they were doing, and how they’d gotten to this point. And thus, a story was born.*
Reading Other Books: I was reading a book** and came across the line “and the matter of Mrs. Victoria Mendosa’s mysteriously vanishing thimble and its consequences.” This made me think of what kind of consequences a missing thimble might create, and what it would mean, which lead me to wonder why a thimble? Who had given it? Who had received it? What was its purpose? And then I suddenly had a story.
Random Things: I was on a bus a while back and was watching the scenery roll by. Being from Newfoundland, I love the island’s scenery, but traveling in Nova Scotia isn’t the same. Some parts are okay, but there aren’t a lot of mountains. I realized I missed the mountains. I realized that maybe someone else was missing mountains as well, and maybe they had a story to tell about why.
Submission Prompts: A lot of the time when I’m looking for places to submit writing, they have very specific prompts – and a lot of the time I don’t have anything that fits those prompts. So I have to think about what the publisher wants, what I can bring that someone else might not. This usually goes sideways for me, because my brain is one of those weird ones that immediately jumps to werewolves when you ask me to think about fish.***
Asking ‘Why?’: This usually comes after the first glimmer of an idea, but it’s the one that helps me whenever I get stuck. Why did this person do that? Why is she running away? Why should I bother telling this story? Throw in the other questions, as well: Who are they fighting? How does she expect to win? Where does this all take place? Ask questions, and seek out multiple answers. Try to surprise yourself.
Mostly it’s about recognizing which ideas you should hold on to; which ones you should give more thought to; and which you should pack away to look at later.
It’s about realizing that anything could be an idea, if you think about it.
Also, keep a pen handy so that you can write them down before you forget them.
*Fun fact: I ended up having to write a new ending by the time I got there, because the scene no longer fit the story. But I kept part of the scene in the story as a dream someone has.
**“Dust and Shadow” by Lyndsay Faye.
***fish = water = creatures = teeth = monsters = werewolves.