This morning I woke at six am, and thinking it was an unGodly hour to get up on a Sunday, decided to make myself go back to sleep. That's easier in Autumn, as the morning was still very dark and so I let my mind drift onto the current novel, and posed myself a problem as I fell asleep. When I woke, two and a half hours later, the problem was solved and I could see for the first time all of the story for this book laid out before me. And particularly the extra plots that would be running through it, which was the subject of my problem.
This is one of the ways that ideas form for me - or indeed how literary problems sort themselves out.
David J Howe calls this the 'What if ...' and that's a good way of starting to thinking about what I perceive as 'the problem'. You can see his thoughts on 'The Power of If ...' HERE.
Half sleep germination has its problems of course. You could go back into full sleep and completely forget the idea that seemed so viable when you were drifting off. I know a few writers who keep a notebook beside the bed for such moments. That's never really worked for me though as I prefer to brood on ideas before committing them to the page in any form.
The other thing I do is people watch. Sometimes I don't even realise I'm doing it, but a moment of observation will appear in the strangest of places. In 'Demon Dance' for example, a conversation from my childhood surfaced in my memory and formed the dialogue of two incidental characters hiking in Llanberis. So even the things you observed as a child can be used to colour or create a scene or a character if the content fits.
Ideas spring from a casual comment, a fleeting conversation, sometimes they come from reading the works of others, which is why authors are often so well read. I have a habit of avoiding reading current fantasy or horror while I'm working. I prefer to read other things instead as I don't like to inadvertently take on someone else's ideas. It's better to create worlds with the surety that you aren't reproducing a world you've recently read about.
New writers, however, should read as much as possible. It's were you learn about your market place ... but I think that's another blog for another day.
If you want to know where ideas really come from though, I suggest you look deep into your own mind. My ideas come from deep inside mine. They are part of who I am. They are drawn from the things I've experienced in life (that's not to say I've met vampires, werewolves, aliens or been thrown through a time-portal back to the Garden of Eden). Normal, or abnormal experiences, however, are used to give the characters I write about genuine feelings and depth.I won't get into the old cliches about my childhood, or the things I've suffered. Everyone has been through experiences good and bad which a good writer uses to make their characters behave in a way that's believeable.
The reality is all the ideas should come from you.
A way to generate ideas of course is to brain-storm (PC fanatics will hate it that I use this term). Some people do this by writing a synopsis that works out all the kinks in the plot before they begin writing. It's a good method if it works for you as it gives you a road-map before you start, and makes it easier for you to write the full piece. Others do the 'What if ...'
Talking through the plot of a story, explaining it to someone else, can also help you come up with better ideas. I brain-storm with my partner David: he's great at making me think about things a bit more. He'll ask me questions about my characters and I realised that by answering the questions I was able to fully develop my own understanding of the characters and their behaviour - thus improving the narrative.
As you begin to explore the limit of the story the possibilities suddenly become boundless. Ideas are limited only by your own imagination. That's not to say all ideas are good ones. Some are non-starters. I sometimes dream new ideas. My story 'The Toymakers House', which features in my horror collection Zombies in New York and Other Bloody Jottings, came from a nightmare I had. I was writing the collection at the time, and so I was forcing myself to write one story after another. In many ways this is harder than writing an entire novel. Simply because a novel is based around one main theme, or idea, with set characters. Writing a collection meant I had to create many characters, many themes and plots and keep them all within around 8000 words each. 'Toymaker' wrote itself, as the nightmare was so vivid that I knew the location, the characters and the awful things the toymaker did before I starting writing. My subconscious mind had already created it. I don't really know where this 'idea' came from though - other than some inner recess of my resting mind. This doesn't always work out though. I had another nightmare recently that I woke from thinking this would make an excellent novel, but when I sat down to write up the synopsis I felt no real passion for the story and it just didn't have the same depth that 'Toymaker' had for me.
Fears and phobias are always good to use - especially your own. I have a fear of heights and this is enhanced because I also suffer occasionally from Labrynthitus (an inner ear problem that makes you feel dizzy to the point of falling down and being sick - not an aversion to the David Bowie movie!). When I'm in high places that dizziness comes on and I'm convinced I'll fall. The idea of vertigo as a plot is not an original one - but how you use it can be.
You see you can't just discuss 'where ideas come from ...' without exploring their execution. But I'll end my thoughts here for today and ask you the question that is frequently asked of me ...
'Where do you get your ideas from?'
It's hard to come up with one main answer isn't it? But I guess the ideas can come, in the first instance, from what inspires you.