This is one of the more common questions I’ve gotten from people over the years, so I thought I’d address it, here.
Story ideas, of course, can come from just about anywhere. Writers pretty much play the “what if” game all the time. It’s just how we think. And it doesn’t have to be anything as grandiose as, “What if Germany had won WWII?” It can be something as simple as, “I found a shoe at the side of the road. What if there had been a foot in it?”
We find inspiration for story ideas in our own lives, of course, and that’s been a treasure trove for me. For example, One Nation Under God was directly a result of where I happened to be living at the time, which was Utah. I’ve long been an activist for freethought causes, especially the separation of church and state. And Utah… well… there’s not much separation, there, to put it lightly. I also began writing it around the time when George W. Bush was elected, and I saw a lot of writing on the walls, so to speak. My book was written essentially as a warning against the dangers of mixing government and religion. I’m not happy that some of the things I wrote about actually came to pass.
Story ideas can come not only from life events, but also from our hobbies. For example, people today know George R. R. Martin primarily for his book series, A Song of Ice and Fire, and the HBO Series based on it, Game of Thrones. But I first heard of the man many years ago when he was editing a series of books called Wild Cards. This series of books was inspired by, among other influences, a super-hero role-playing game that Martin and several other writers played together. And I can totally relate to this.
My first novel, Wish You Were Here, was inspired by my college days playing Dungeons & Dragons. At some point in our playing, one of the guys in our group decided it would be fun to create characters based on ourselves. Granted, they were idealized and exaggerated versions of ourselves, but in this way, “we” became adventurers in our games.
It didn’t take long for me to see the potential for a story, here. I’d always been a big fan of the “fish out of water” concept of stories, and one of my favorites was the John Carter of Mars series by Edgar Rice Burroughs. John Carter was a Civil War captain who found himself mystically transported to Barsoom, the planet we call Mars, where he had all sorts of awesome adventures. So, with our D&D characters, I simply wondered what would happen if a teenage boy from Earth was somehow transported to a world of magic and monsters, with no idea how he got there or how to get back. The rest came pretty easily.
But Wish You Were Here isn’t my only game-inspired book. Many years later, I discovered an online MMORPG called City of Heroes. Creating my own hero and play-acting them with a bunch of others doing the same thing was an absolute blast. And the character I first created for the game, Dynamistress, was always my favorite. I played her for six years before the game was canceled. And now, she lives on in a series called The Many Deaths of Dynamistress.
I figure George R. R. Martin would probably dig it.