Ideas for writing come from many places, some stranger than others. I should point out that everyone gets ideas, but unless you’re a writer you’re not likely to pay attention or even notice ideas that might make good articles or stories. How come? Because you don’t need them. If you’re a programmer and you need to solve a problem with a section of code in your program, then you’ll only be interested in ideas that would work for that issue. Bakers will get ideas related to baking, homemakers will get ideas associated with helping their homes run smoother, and teachers will find ideas that will help them teach. Something that might solve a plumbing problem simply won’t register unless you have a leak that needs fixing.
So as a writer, I’m always needing to find ideas for my job and so those are the ideas that I notice. In fact, I generally wind up with more ideas than I have the time or energy to use.
Where do they come from? I’ll get ideas from reading a story in the newspaper. For instance, a few years ago, I read about a skull that was discovered in the desert by hikers. I got a picture in my head about it, and began wondering if it was a murder victim. Then I contemplated what an odd thing it would be to find a skull or, or worse, a corpse. What would be worse than that, I wondered. Then it hit me: what would you do if you found a body, rolled it over, and found yourself looking down at your own face? I heard Twilight Zone music. And from that came a science fiction tale.
The difficulty in writing is not so much the idea, it is in the execution. For instance, with the thought of finding your own dead body, I had to then invent a solution to such a mystery that makes some sort of sense. Science fiction, like most genres of literature, has its own set of clichés that should be avoided. I had to come up with how you could be alive and still find your own dead body that didn’t involve time travel, cloning, robots or parallel universes. I also wanted the story to have a happy, rather than a tragic ending. It took awhile.
Ideas sometimes arise from events in my own life, or the lives of people I know. After all, we writers really do write what we know. Thus, my characters will usually have jobs of a sort that I have had at one point or another in my life—or a job that belongs to a friend or relative. I’ll set the characters into locations where I have lived or visited—or places where friends or relatives have gone. So for instance with my historical novel about the battle of Ain Jalut in Israel in 1260 between the army of the Mongol Hulagu Khan and the Egyptian Mamluks, I began the novel with Hulagu’s destruction of Baghdad and his slaughter of its 800,000 inhabitants in 1258. I haven’t been to Baghdad or Iraq, but I have a friend who was born there and lived there before his escape in 1980. And I have another friend who served a tour of duty in Iraq. So from the two of them, I got good descriptions of the landscape, weather, smells, plant life and the like. The other details specific to the Middle Ages involved research in books.
Mostly, however, when people ask me where I get my ideas from, I suspect that they are hoping to hear an answer more magical: that somehow ideas just pop into my head full grown. Or that perhaps that they come from dreams.
And occasionally, dreams are where ideas comes from. Usually a dream will only provide a scene or an image in a larger story. For instance, I had a recurring dream of riding in an elevator that not only went up and down, but also side to side and diagonally. I used how that felt in my dream to describe a scene in a story.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge claimed that he got his poem Kubla Khan in a dream—and that it is incomplete because someone knocked on his door before he could write it all down.
I have gotten the ideas or plots of whole novels by way of a dream exactly twice. I once suffered three years of writer’s block as a consequence of the SIDS death of our foster son (and subsequent wrongful death lawsuit). The dream I had a few weeks after the lawsuit was dismissed became the plunger that ended my writer’s block and served as the basis for a new novel.
The other time was a recurring dream, that I had not known was a recurring dream until I awakened in the middle of it and wrote it down one night. I realized, as I wrote it down that I had dreamed it before; in fact, I had dreamed it several times and had even had a vague conscious memory of it that I had dismissed as a movie half-remembered. It was only after having awakened from the dream that I realized that it was no movie, but was instead something my own sleep-addled brain had given me.
As to where a dream comes from, and why, very rarely, a dream will actually make for a good story, is something I can’t answer. So far as an idea for a story is concerned, however, such dreams are no better or worse, or any easier or harder to transform into a written work, than an idea that comes from any other place.