Story ideas surround us every day, but when a writer gets blocked it can seem like there is nothing new in the world. There are an infinite number of ways to shake up your routine and get the creative juices flowing again. Many of my favorites involve writing prompts or observing the world around me.
The best part about ideas is that the more of them you use, the more you seem to have! The simple act of sitting down with your computer or notebook and free-writing can trigger a flood of ideas.
Try your hand at writing exercises and prompts. Many websites and message boards have a list of these for writers. A quick Google search for "writing prompts" can bring up more than you could finish in a lifetime of writing. There are also entire books devoted to writing exercises to help stimulate your mind and improve your writing. My favorite is "The 3 A.M Epiphany" by Brian Kiteley. This book contains over 200 exercises focused on every part of writing.
My favorite prompt: Spend ten minutes writing about your favorite food. Use all five senses when you describe it. When do you normally eat it? Is it from a restaurant, or homemade? When was the last time you had this meal? Food is a universal experience, and everyone has something to say about it. If your writing meanders during this exercise, run with it! You never know where your brain is going to take you. You may remember an experience that triggers a great idea.
I like to keep a pocket-sized notebook nearby as much as possible. Have you ever been out running errands and been struck by a great idea, only to have it disappear before you reach a computer? Jotting down notes, even if it's just a few words, can help you keep these ideas in mind. I also have one computer file devoted solely to future ideas. They range from one sentence to several pages, and are there to browse through whenever I am ready to start a new project. Many writers tend to find ideas right before they go to sleep or in their dreams, so keeping your notebook by the bed couldn't hurt.
Spend time people-watching. If you have a friend who is a writer, this can be a great game. Get a cup of coffee and find a public spot to sit down. Pick out someone from the crowd, and make up a story about them. What do they do for a living? Do they have a family? What is their average day like? Just try not to get caught staring!
Art museums can be a wonderful place to come up with ideas if you are fortunate to live near one. When you have a free afternoon, grab your notebook and sit down in front of a work of art. Whether you choose abstract paintings, sculptures, or photography, ask yourself questions. I once did this exercise with an exhibition of photographs of homes. I spent time looking at one, then asked myself who might have lived there and what kind of life did they lead.
Find your characters first, and let them tell their own story. Often, if a character is well developed, they seem to have their own ideas about how the story should go. Plot points that might have been planned out suddenly don't seem natural for their personality. If your characters seem to be leading things in a different direction, run with it. It means that you have done your job well and created realistic people to inhabit your world.
Ask "what if" questions about experiences in your own life, or about stories you hear from others. What would have happened if someone made a different choice? How would things have changed? By looking at old experiences with a new perspective, you may just stumble upon a gem.