The short but incomplete answer seems to be “everywhere.” Or as Ursula Le Guin once remarked, turning the question back on her interviewer, “Where do you not get them?” They’re all around, all the time. Despite this, show me the beginning writer who has not, at one time or another, bemoaned the fact that they want to write so very badly but don’t have the slightest clue as to what to write about. This makes them feel stupid and resentful. I know. I remember. One could pile on like a rat bastard by simply saying “If you can’t think of anything, then you’re probably not a writer. Give it up.” That not only shows a meanness of spirit but, more to the point, it’s simply not true. Beginners, like almost every other sentient human being, have lots of ideas. The actual problem is they don’t know which of them are stories.
One of the hardest parts of learning to write, aside from gaining competency with the tools of grammar and usage, is being able to spot a story idea when you have one. If there actually is a trick to the whole thing, a real-world equivalent of the legendary “Secret Handshake,” this is it, the actual insight that can lead to getting a handle, however tenuous, on being a writer. Not being “talented,” or a good observer, or smart. All those things will help (excusing the “not” part), and the absence of any of them will be keenly felt. Yet one could still get by with patience and persistence, provided you know what you’re looking for, and learning how to spot what you’re looking for is just as important as knowing how to put words together to say what you mean. It doesn’t necessarily come easily, and not when you want or expect. A lot of the time it just happens, and you have to recognize when it’s happened.
Whaddya mean? What’s happened?
The story’s kicked you in the butt, that’s what’s happened. Think of it this way–you want to write. You’re looking for something, some notion or character that’s going to light the fire under you and get the ball rolling. That’s what you want, but for some reason it’s not happening. I maintain that it IS happening. Your subconscious is working for you, but odds are you’re throwing out everything that comes up as unworthy, and doing it almost by reflex. It’s gotta be big, it’s gotta move you to tears just on its arrival, it’s gotta…well, something. You don’t know what, but something. You can’t find it. Granted, most notions are unworthy, but in the early days you haven’t yet learned to tell the difference. I’ll give you a couple of examples–the genesis of “Knacker Man” that appeared in Robert Bloch’s Psychos was a single word: “knacker.” An online conversation where someone was explaining what the word meant and the context for it. That’s all it was–just one casual word in an online conversation. Or “My Lord Teaser” in Elf Magic, which came from serendipitously stumbling across the old horse breeding technique of the “teaser stallion,” whose job, before more precise instruments were invented, was to test if the brood mare was interested, risking getting his teeth kicked in during the process, to see if it was safe for the less expendable breeder stallion. Just that. And if I’d been in my first year or two of scrivening, I’d never have spotted either one, never said more than “Oh. That’s weird.” And I would have let them get away.
Once or twice I’ve used the term “ambushed” to refer to a story’s arrival, and often that’s a lot like it actually feels, once you know what you’re looking for. I’ve been blindsided and taken by surprise by a lot of things, including just a very small portion of a much larger picture, but that small corner held all the story. For whatever reason, it held my attention, and I recognized what it was. That’s how you do it–you learn to wait for just that little bit of frisson. Don’t expect the top of your head to come off. Metaphorically, that can happen, but as often as not the trigger will initiate a moment of stillness, not excitement. A bit of pondering. Where did that come from? What should I do with it? And if the only answer that makes sense is “Write it,” then it’s a story. You don’t have to know what it means. You don’t have to know where it’s going. You don’t even have to understand it. You just have to write it. Simple.
And it is simple. What it ain’t, is easy.