I think, though I’ve never done a study, that some people get their inspiration always the same way. But for the majority of mortals the muse may or may not come and our ideas flow from various sources. My ideas come from many sources. The least likely is that I see a call for submissions on a particular themed anthology, say, spotted flying pigs. If the idea really hits me, or I have something in the works, I’ll give it a go.
A fair number of my ideas begin with dreams. It might be a world, an image or a conflict. Dreams are tricky things, though. They follow their own logic. They make sense at the time but the scene changes are sudden and sometimes psychedelic. A story based on a dream often takes straightening out on the chronology, as well as adding a flow and logic that might be missing or too obfuscating. The novel I hope to work farther on this summer (a fantasy novel on a different and complex world) was based on a dream. It was very detailed, with conflict, hierarchy and politics. I couldn’t pass that up.
Often I will think a what-if. What if people breathed through their eyes? What if flowers grew underground? What if we were invaded, not by highly intelligent and technologized lifeforms, but by microbial life that changed us into creatures unfit for our world? A galaxy of what-ifs. They’re only the starting point, the basis of a setting. The conflict, personalizing (adding the characters) is always the hardest, for me anyways.
Sometimes stories start with a random image, a phrase, something someone says or does. I once had some day surgery, a laparoscopy, which involves several small incisions. Anything invasive takes the body time to heal. I had to wear loose clothing for a couple weeks and would experience some pain and discomfort. I said at one point, “It feels like I have a black hole in my stomach.” From that phrase I started working out a story, which started with, “Jenny has a black hole in her stomach.” I sold that story “Consuming Fear” very quickly to the Northern Frights anthology.
Once in a blue moon the muse truly hits. I’m not sure she’s truly taken over more than once. I was in the middle of a story, writing along when these phrases and images started pouring into my mind. I finally had to just put aside the story I was working on and write the other one. It flowed out in just a few days, in a lyrical style quite different than my style in other stories. “The Fishwife” sold to Descant, again on its second or third submission.
But most of the time we can’t wait for the muse. It’s no surprise though, that through history writers sought their muses in opium dens, drugs of various sorts and drugs. We look for things to inspire us, to move us beyond the norm, to fire our imagination with a story that should be told. I try to remember the muse moments and see if I can sometimes draw on those styles. But in the meantime, I look for ideas and sometimes plod through a story, one paragraph at a time.