I’ve actually been asked this quite a bit over the years—mostly by non-writers. I’m still not sure why it turns into the default question, but there’s no denying, it’s popular. My first theory is that if you have to ask, you clearly don’t get ideas. Then I think, wait, that can’t possibly by right, so my second theory is that all these people are getting ideas and then ignoring them. Which strikes me as minor sacrilege, but then, this is probably why I’m a writer.
As a lot of you can probably attest, people typically don’t set out with the intention of Getting an Idea in quite the same way they’d go down to the store for bread. The bread requires a well-intentioned plan, while the idea often just sort of comes. I’ve personally found that everything after the idea is a lot of work, but at the moment the idea arrives, it’s fairly effortless and I’m doing something completely unrelated, like standing in line at the DMV.
This is not to say that a story comes from absolutely nowhere. A lot of my smaller ones come from reading. Particularly in magazine articles and scholarly journals, I’ve found that something will be mentioned just in passing and I’ll start getting curious about it. Then, if it keeps gnawing at me, I’ll make a point to find out more, which usually leads to more ideas. But those are the little ones. The big ones almost always come from being out in the world, doing stuff.
This is why I don’t ever go anywhere without a tiny notebook.
What about you? Do you have a favorite place or technique for tracking down ideas?