I teach writing workshops at the Writers Center, in Bethesda MD, and one of my class handouts lists places to get ideas. They are culled from my experience and those of other writers, and include:
The shopping mall. This is where I got the idea for “Ain’ Nothin’ But A Hound Dog,” a short story about an alien collecting Elvis souvenirs. When Potomac Mills Mall first opened in Occoquan, VA, they had an Elvis museum. You would not think such a venue would be a money-maker in a mall, and in fact it is long gone. But the very idea that somebody would consider such a venture meant I had to write a story. (I will get it up onto Book View Cafe any time now…)
The Yellow Pages. An older writer told me this trick. You get a Yellow Pages, and open it at random. Let us say it falls open at Tree Surgeons. Well, what about tree surgeons? Are there any on Mars? If not, what is the local Martian equivalent?
A major newspaper. You need a major newspaper because you need a large volume of material; it would also do to work with the AP feed or Yaho0 News. Weird things happen every single day in the world, that just beg to be turned into fiction; stupendous photographs are available that would inspire anybody. In the old days writers would keep Commonplace Books, in which they would paste the cut-out newspaper clippings; you could amass links. But don’t just keep them; look at them — and write. I wrote Speak to Our Desires during the Reagan administration (it will be up on BVC later this year) because I was gnawing on the idea of the Reagan magic, the political charisma. It was almost a super-power. And if it was a super-power, he needed a secret origin — so I wrote him one.
Typos. The story is that SF titan Gene Wolfe gave an interview once to a very young newspaper reporter. He told the reporter that his next book was going to be Citadel of the Autarch. When the story appeared, readers were informed that Mr. Wolfe’s next great book was going to be Castle of the Otter. Rather than calling the young writer on his error, Wolfe wrote the book. And once I helped construct an entire D&D campaign revolving around the fact that there is only one letter distinguishing ‘erotic’ from ‘exotic’; much confusion was generated and that cache of Kama Sutra scrolls was sadly disappointing.
Get really mad about something. Remember Uncle Tom’s Cabin? Harriett Beecher Stowe wrote it as a polemic against slavery — and it worked. When she met Abraham Lincoln after it became a best-seller, he said, “So this is the little lady who started such a great big war.” An author with a burr under her tail can change the world!
Find something to be afraid of. There are entire genres devoted to fiction about ecological collapse, or nuclear holocaust, or the fascist takeover of (your nation here). Read The Young Unicorns by Madeleine L’Engle — you can tell she worried about losing her kids in New York City, especially underground; this woman must have been a claustrophobe. Or consider Gone With the Wind. Among many other things, it is a book in which the author is working out a personal conundrum: what if I had married the wrong man after all? (It helps here to have read Margaret Mitchell’s biography, and to know that she dated a Rhett Butler for some time before settling down with a Charles Hamilton.)
Become intimate with another language or culture. There is of course a strong tradition of making up that language and culture out of whole cloth, as Tolkien did. But this is not at all a requisite. Look at Shogun. Or better yet, Gidget. Before Sally Field, before the TV and the movie versions, there was the novel. Author Frederick Kohner lived in southern California, and his daughter was a surfer. She would come home and speak Surf at him. Fascinated, he transcribed the language and then wrote a novel. How could he not?