For me, ideas are like butterflies – everywhere and of the moment, so if one flutters by that I like, I write myself a note with enough detail to jog my memory later. I can’t tell you how many ideas have escaped me because they were so cool I was sure I’d remember them…and then I didn’t. Only the fact that there’d been an idea…which is beyond frustrating. So write them DOWN is my advice!
Now some story ideas are HUGE and I won’t forget them, like writing a scifi novel based on the Titanic sinking, but set in the far future. That one I mulled for a long time before I actually wrote Wreck of the Nebula Dream and I had no trouble keeping it in the forefront of my mind. Titanic was a fascination of mine since I was a little girl (family lore, which I now actually doubt, was that we had a distant relative in Second Class who survived) and so it was no great surprise that I eventually wrote my own version of the shipwreck story.
But most of the little sparks or seeds that could turn into a story, or an interesting wrinkle in a story come to me while I’m reading magazines, either online or in real life, or looking at fashion magazines (some photo shoots are really edgy) or just going about the duties of daily life. I have a huge file of notes and articles torn out (or printed out) but you know what I’ve found? I almost never actually go back in and look at that file. When an idea inspires me, it’s usually a new idea and it’s so shiny or so enticing I just have to get right on it and develop a story around it. If an idea stays in my backlog for too long, it gets eclipsed by the newer stuff.
Actually Business Week has been a good source of ideas for me. For example, my Star Cruise: Songbird story was inspired by an article I read in BW about rock stars doing theme cruises for their fans. And the fact that one of my characters who appears in several scifi romance novels is connected to the Sectors spice merchant guild through her family connections started with a BW article on the real-life exotic spice trade.
To give another example, Mission to Mahjundar was inspired by a perfume ad and a calendar photo. I don’t own the rights to either photo so I can’t share them here (although I still have my somewhat tattered copies) but the backstory is as follows: One day I saw a photo of a windswept, abandoned temple, standing alone on a plateau, somewhere in the Middle East. The image remained with me and I pondered – as one does – what adventure would bring people to this remote location and what would happen to them there. What would they be seeking? Would they find whatever they needed? This became the inspiration for the temple of the Mahjundan Ten Gods, where Shalira must go on her wedding journey, to seek a key to her mother’s long-closed tomb. It also established in my mind that the planet Mahjundar was going to be loosely based on Middle Eastern themes. I’m not sure how much the completed novel carries that intent out since after all, the planet is not-Earth, but there was influence as I pictured the daily life Shalira might lead.
But the key thing that put all the other elements together in my mind and set off the plot came when I happened across a perfume ad in a magazine. The illustration was very dark in tone, with a woman in a purple-and-gold hooded cloak holding a beautiful crystal bottle that glowed golden. The light from the bottle illuminated her face. And I thought, that’s it! That’s Shalira inside the tomb. Then I needed to know who would be there with her…and of course my Sectors Special Forces soldier, Mike Varone, told me he would be!
Ideas for the details of the book itself may also come from the same sources but once I have the big concept locked in, I'm more likely to be sitting at my dining room table, brainstorming with myself and saying, well if there's going to be an epidemic on an interstellar cruise liner, what kind of disease can it be? And off I go to research ebola and norovirus and a few other exotic things I can't mention or else I'll give part of the Star Cruise: Outbreak plot away.
So there you have it but this is only a partial discussion of where my ideas come from, because they literally come from everywhere, all the time. Only a few make it to the stage where I’m actively working to incorporate them into a novel. So many ideas in that flock of butterflies and so little time!