I ran across a video of writer Neil Gaiman (The Ocean at the End of the Lane, The Graveyard Book) answering that very question. You might want to watch it. It's bound to be more eloquent than my answer.
He said this, which resonated with me: Writers notice when they get ideas. They notice when their imaginations take a strange turn. Anyone can do it; you just have to practice and train yourself. Start by writing anything down, no matter how mundane or fantastic. It may not be the greatest or most original idea ever, but you'll wake up that part of your brain that wants to play with the world.
The What If? Question
We're all born doing this, asking that "What if?" question. In my presentations to schoolkids, I often show them the "What if" pattern of my first novel, The Key & the Flame:
- WHAT IF 3 kids found their way to a fantastical kingdom?
- WHAT IF that kingdom was full of magic?
- WHAT IF the king of that land hated magic and killed anyone who practiced it?
That's just the beginning. The What If's carry on from there, but they could go in any direction. If you start at the beginning of the story--WHAT IF a girl was given a mysterious key and she found that it opened a door in an ancient oak tree--you could take that all over the place.
What might lie on the other side of such a door?
- a fanastical kingdom
- a house containing long-lost things
- a girl holding a sword
- a ship at sea
- outer space
- a library
- the world in miniature
- an African savannah
- a path through the sky
- someone who grabbed your hand and yelled, "Where have you been? Let's go!"
Gettting started is noticing when a strange thought passes through your mind. You might note it down for later reference in a notebook you keep in your purse or pocket. Sometimes I do that, but often I just have my mobile phone with me and I jot it in the Evernote app under a file called "Writing Ideas."
The Why? Question
Get used to asking not only "What if?" but also "Why?" You're sitting in an ice-cream shop and you notice a haggard man in a rumpled suit sitting alone, eating an enormous banana split. Ask yourself Why? Why is he eating such a celebratory dessert all alone? Why does he look so disheveled? Is that a tear rolling down his cheek? Why is he so sad? His suit is wrinkled but his shoes are polished to a high sheen; why is that? Did he drive to the shop or take a cab or a train? Did he stop on sudden impulse or was this a planned outing? Doesn't he have a job he should be at? Has he just lost it? Was he on a date that failed miserably? Why isn't he married?
One of the reasons I like eating lunch alone on a barstool or in a restaurant is that I listen to conversations around me. These snapshots of people's lives can be very interesting. Or they can be very dull, and my brain spins them into something more interesting.
"So I told him, 'Forget it. I'm not covering for you anymore.'""No way!""I'm tired of his garbage. Why should I have to take the heat for what he did?"Oooh oooh ooh ... what did he do?"He must've totally lost it.""Oh, he was mad, all right."Did he pick up a vase and throw it at you? Maybe he drew a gun ... You'll pay for this one, Madeleine ...."So you turned him in?"Hurry, Maddie, hit the alarm button! Why are you just standing there? He's going to kill you."I almost didn't. I mean, we were friends once."An old lover. I knew it. He still has feelings for you, but now those feelings have turned to hate. Maddie ... the alarm button ... Maddie!"That should count for something, I guess."Why don't you ever carry your own weapon? You know what he's like."Well, not anymore. I'd had it."So then ... I can't watch ..."So then I said, 'You can't switch time cards with me anymore, Frank. If you're late, you're late, and you'll just have to deal with it.'"
If You Live in a Boring Place
Nothing magical ever happens where you work? I don't buy it. Look around. Listen. Observe. Be Sherlock Holmes. Ask questions, always, always, in your head. Fill yourself up with wonder: Go to movies. Read books. Read different books, stories outside your comfort zone. Wander through art galleries. Take a day trip. Visit antique stores. Walk through the open-air market. Do these things alone, and really look at the objects. Listen to the people. Let your brain play.
That's where ideas come from.
image from Wikimedia Commons, by Mehdinom (own work). Reproduced by permission under GFDL and this Creative Commons license.