Leonardo di Vinci used to stare at the walls in his studio until the damp patches formed scenes and figures he wanted to paint. If you look closely at some of his works, you can see how those dark stains suggested the rock formations he conjured. Leonardo’s wall staring is an illustration of how easy it is to get creative ideas. In fact, in my opinion, you don’t so much ‘get’ ideas as you eek them out from within. A headline, for example, will just awaken a story you’ve always wanted to tell. I see stories as akin to fish swimming inside us, we just need a hook to get a good catch.
Hopefully, you don’t have damp patches around your writer’s garret. You may have yesterday’s newspaper, however. I worked as a journalist for many years and love newspapers and appreciate them as a source of ideas and stories for the creative writer. For starters, you could just take an existing story and change the setting/gender etc… to make it your own. Ideas will come to you as you work on it.
Alternatively, you could apply the ‘what if’ question. The ‘what if’ question prompts you to consider alternative endings. A good example of this question is Stephen Fry’s Making History, in which he explores a world where Hitler was killed in WWI but an even more dastardly figure comes to prominence, and wins.
The small ads section can spur the imagination. Hemmingway once said his best work was one he wrote in six words: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn”. It’s clever as there is clearly a heavy back story here but Hemmingway, being Papa, does not spell it out. My point is that you could operate in reverse, search the small ads and then write its back story. Think of the tale behind a novel that ends with that small ad.
Then there are photos. Ignore the captions/related stories. Look at the photos and guess what is going on. Develop an identity for someone in the background of a picture. Give them a problem. Imagine how they are being affected by the main event in the photo. The key is to go for the more obscure shots. Obviously, if it’s a picture of 9/11, the chances are you’re not going to come up with anything too original but if it’s a picture of a man biting a dog, you may be on to something.
Your stories are within, take the plunge and go fishing.