This can be a difficult question to answer, since usually, an idea seems to come out of nowhere. One day you're driving in your car or taking a shower and BAM! An idea hits you. Some of us even wake up in the middle of the night and have to grope for a pen on the bedside table to jot down the idea that came to us in our sleep.
All of this would seem to imply that we as writers have no control over our ideas. I disagree. These ideas, I would argue, are the product of a subconscious mind that has been "trained" to act as an "idea generating machine."
Here are five suggestions to prime your mind to subconsciously formulate story ideas:
1. Always ask "what if"? You may have heard never to open a query letter with a hypothetical question - and I heartily agree with this advice - but that shouldn't mean that hypotheticals are useless to writers. Most of us think this way already. If it rains for three days straight, we say, "Imagine if this were snow!" If it starts to storm, we say, "Imagine if you had to leave on a flight on a day like today!"
Since most of us already think this way, I'm simply suggesting you take your questions a bit further, depending upon your genre, of course. You may ask yourself, "What if it never stopped raining ever again?" or "What if the rain that fell was acid and destroyed everything it touched?" You may think of the flight taking off in a storm and ask, "What if two long separated lovers were seated next to each other in a jet taking off in horribly bad weather?" or "What if lightning hit an engine just as a hijacker was storming the cockpit?"
Just pushing your "what ifs" a bit further will jump start your imagination.
2. Never accept that there is only one solution to a problem. If you have to pick up Joannie from cheerleading and Rebecca from field hockey, and they are ten minutes apart and you have only five minutes to make the trip, you can probably figure out at least one solution. Maybe Joannie catches a ride with another family. There's a solution, so the problem is solved. But as a writer, I suggest you train yourself to come up with a few extra solutions. Rebecca could walk to the local library and wait there. Joannie could ride her bike to practice so that you only need to worry about Rebecca. By looking for multiple solutions to problems, your brain acquires the habit of thinking creatively.
3. Ask questions like a child. I remember when my son was small he would ask questions all the time. "How does an antenna work?" "Why do fluorescent lights make my skin look blue?" "How does the TV find the right show when you change the channel?" I'm embarrassed to admit how many times I had to answer, "Go ask Dad." Shouldn't a grown woman know how an antenna works? And if she doesn't, shouldn't she be anxious to find out the answer? Unfortunately, as we get older, we let the day-to-day questions, "How am I ever going to pay the cell phone bill?" crowd out the questions that lead to much more creative thinking.
4. Read widely. While it's important to read in the genre you write, you should also be reading fiction you don't write, as well as magazine articles, the newspaper, travel stories, or science journals. Recently, while the miners were trapped, I developed a voracious interest in Chile, and tried to learn as much as I could about this country I'd rarely thought about before. Not long before that, a photo on a magazine cover spawned a frenzy of research into Machu Picchu. To date, I've never used anything I've learned about Chile or Machu Picchu in any of my fiction, but it has helped train my mind to imagine different environments, and the lives of the people who live there.
5. Think like a "social anthropologist." The best way I can explain what I mean by this it to tell you about a recent experience of having my car towed in Philadelphia. Finding my car missing from the place I had parked it started a series of events, each one more frustrating and inconvenient than the last. Hours later, my husband and I found ourselves in a neighborhood I most likely never would have wandered into, trying to negotiate with a very unreasonable man through a window so darkly tinted as to make it impossible to see his face. He directed us to a corner auto tags service - a tiny room where the none-stop sale of lottery tickets appeared to be the only purpose of the business. Once we managed to find someone who spoke enough English to understand what we needed, we were able to have proof of insurance faxed to the establishment so that we could then return to the rudest man in Philadelphia, talk to him through his bullet-proof tinted glass, and finally, claim our vehicle.
You may be wondering what this has to do with anthropology. Good question! After all, this experience was far from educational. Yet, it did introduce me to people, places, manners, and routines that are outside my typical life experiences. Through it all, I tried to make a mental image of the landscape, the behaviors, and the expectations that were unique to this particular situation. For that afternoon, I was a "social anthropologist."
As a writer, I'm sure you know that your mind is working on a subconscious level all the time, even while you sleep. Tell your subconscious that you want it to come up with new ideas and premises for you. Teach it as many creative thinking techniques as you can. Then, just get out of its way.
Do you have unique methods for generating ideas? Do you already practice any of these habits? I'd love to hear from you in the comments.