This is the question everyone loves to ask—‘how do you get your ideas?’—and the question every writer dreads having to answer. The truth is that ideas just pop into existence, and no one really knows where they were hanging around beforehand.
It would be handy if there were some high-powered meditation technique to make them pop into existence, but I don’t know what it is. I think the best you can do is not let the ideas you have go to waste.
If these were tips for semi-autobiographical fiction, I’d probably be talking about closely observing the real life around you, making notes on fellow-passengers on the train, etc. But that’s not enough for genre fiction, especially not speculative fiction.
You need to observe in a what-if state of mind. What if that man on the train had a long knife in the package he’s cradling in his lap? What if that building-site hole in the ground didn’t stop five metres down, but went down for kilometres? What if these cracks in the pavement had a significant pattern, and stepping on them in a certain order changed the dimensions of space and time? Maybe a what-if kind of mind is something you’re born with, but you can surely encourage it further.
I used to answer how-do-you-get-your-ideas questions by talking about my dreams, because it’s true, I do draw on a lot of dream-material. After a while, though, it starts to sound corny—‘It came to me in a dream.’ Yeah, yeah, yeah …
Still, if you have vivid dreams, record them, don’t let them go to waste. My trick was to keep pen and paper by the bed, so that, when I woke up out of a dream, I could write down a dozen or so words, often in the dark, then sink back asleep. In the morning, those words were enough to bring back the memory (when I could read my own writing).