Mostly from reading. My ideas for characters may be based on personal observation. My ideas for technical and social details sometimes come to me just because I told my brain I needed something and it better get to work. But the basic idea for a story usually jumps into my head when I'm reading.
CIDER (Asimov's, January 1996) is about people who exterminate species as a kind of sport. I got the idea when I read an article in the Economist that described a place in Africa where armed bodyguards on camels accompany free-roving rhinos.
ROMANCE IN LUNAR G (Asimov's, October 95) grew out of a lifelong fascination with Giacomo Casanvoa. I first became interested in Casanova when I read an essay on him as a teenager. I based a character on Casanova in a story called "Chamber Story" (Asimov's, August 1992). Then I realized a Casanova character could get into all kinds of adventures in whatever future worlds I could imagine. He could travel all over the 21st Century Solar System in the same way the real Casanova traveled all over 18th Century Europe. And he had a built in reason for getting into trouble. I've written three other Casanova stories since I wrote ROMANCE IN LUNAR G-- a kind of Casanova quartet. They all draw, to some extent, on incidents in the real Casanova's life.
RESEARCH PROJECT (Asimov's, January 1995) is about aliens who evolved from forebears who survived by building rather than hunting. The immediate inspiration was a wonderful book about beavers: LILY POND by Hope Ryden.
In DRAGON DRILL (Asimov's, October 1994), a detachment from Frederick the Great's army fights a dragon. One snowy weekend, late at night, I was reading Asimov's, and I noticed a lot of the ads touted books that had dragons in them. I also remembered that I had liked a few stories in which fantasy motifs like werewolves and vampires were placed in unusual settings. Where could I place a dragon, says I? Over the years I've developed some familiarity with the 18th Century-- partly from my interest in Baroque music, partly from wargaming with miniature figures, and partly through a general interest in history. So....
LEGACIES (Asimov's, January 1992) grew out of my interest in military families and military childhoods. I grew up in a naval family, so it's based, to a large extent, on personal observation and experience, and some conversations with other ex-brats. Like a lot of ex-brats, I didn't realize there was anything special about military childhoods until I was in my thirties, in the 1970's. My ideas on the subject didn't really crystalize, however, until 1980, when I saw the movie version of THE GREAT SANTINI and read Pat Conroy's novel. The story was also influenced by several books written by ex-brats: John Master's BUGLES AND A TIGER, William Jay Smith's ARMY BRAT, and a little book of tape recorded interviews called BRATS, by Mary Truscott. It would have been influenced by Mary Wertsch's MILITARY BRATS, but I avoided reading that until after I finished the story. MILITARY BRATS is a long, very powerful book, and I wanted to base LEGACIES on the attitudes I had developed on my own. I've written two other stories on the military brat theme. SERGEANT MOTHER GLORY (Asimov's, Oct-Nov 2000) continues the story begun in LEGACIES. CIVILIANS (Asimov's, Aug 2001) is about military brats as half-breeds.
You also need to know what a story is, of course. Then when an idea jumps into your head, you can see that it can be developed into a story.
I find this subject fascinating. I can tell you how I got the idea for almost every story I've written. Most people, oddly enough, seem to feel I'm giving them a very dull, boring answer to their question. I've been told this is because people want to be told that the true answer is either something magical or a simple formula they can apply without effort.
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