One thing many writers hear often from friends is the question, "Where do you get your ideas?" Often, this question is phrased as a statement like, "I would love to write a book. I just don't have any good ideas for a story."
For many of us, this is not an issue. Rather, we wonder how we'll possibly find the time to write turn all the ideas we get nearly every day into stories. It takes an instant to think of a story, or enough of one to work with, but it takes months or years to actually write it.
The difference between us and them is that, generally speaking, we pay attention. We have to watch people to know how to depict them, and we are aware of things in our environment that are just different enough that they inspire a story.
Some of us have learned to pay attention. Others, like Harriett the Spy, are filled with a natural curiosity that makes us watch what people do and notice the oddness around us.
Many beginning writers learn by playing with writing prompts from books. Many experienced writers still use those prompts for practice and exercise. A lot of us, though, don't need those. We find prompts around us.
Like a situation I found myself in tonight. I was sitting in a Chinese restaurant in San Francisco, waiting for my takeout order. A TV was tuned in to one of those weird competitions that are all over the TV these days, where people basically do real-life video game stuff, jumping through impossible obstacles and loudly beating their own brains out--but muted and with captions turned on. The people in this one were dressed oddly, including an older guy in a swirling tie-dyed t-shirt and what looked like the most hideously strange shorts or swim trunks ever produced by a blind clothing designer on acid. The muzak system was playing a very cheesy, arpeggio-laden, piano-only version of "To All The Girls I've Loved Before."
There weren't many people in the restaurant--an older Chinese woman with a younger Chinese man at one table. A youngish caucasian couple at another table. Out of my line of sight was a family (I assume) with a young boy who was constantly exclaiming reactions to what was happening on the TV. Soon after I sat down, a young African-American woman came in, also for take-out, and sat at the table where they had us wait. Add to that the emotional state I was in, about two hours after learning that my grandmother had passed away.
Everything you need to start a story can be found in that description of the scene. Start asking questions about the people, throw in some what-ifs, and put them together with the odd combination of things in the setting, and you have a better prompt than you'll find in any writing book.
I'd love to do something with it, but I have too many writing projects going already and the magic I felt from the situation is fading after a series of phone calls with family.
But if you like to work from prompts, or if you want to write but can't find any ideas, there you go. Play with that one. Better yet, keep your eyes open. I guarantee you that if you pay attention and look at things from a slightly unorthodox angle, you'll find several writing prompts today, while you go about your normal business.
Where do I get my ideas? I'm surrounded by sources, all the time. So are you. You just have to notice.