Once again, let me turn from the blighted face of the times to something a little more affirmative.
When I posted before about the secret influences behind Always Outnumbered, Never Outgunned, one source I mentioned was The Matrix, but not because I wanted to take ideas from that story. Rather, it was because I'd seen the trailer for the film — which did a very good job of concealing its secrets but sparking interest in it all the same — and from that had drawn completely incorrect conclusions about the movie's premise. Then I saw the movie itself, and while I really liked what I saw, I kept thinking back to the unused premise in question. It more or less sat around, waiting for me to find a home for it, until I started writing the project early last year.
I don't have a name for this phenomenon yet, but it's worth digging into further — this sense of getting the "wrong" idea about some other creative work, and then using that as its own inspiration.
The same impulse takes many forms. In my high school creative writing classes, Mrs. Barron would bring in idea starters, like lists of first sentences she'd written up as story seeds. Once or twice, those would be sentences gleaned from other things, but most of the time they were invented wholesale. Many of them weren't even particularly creative — "She turned the key in the lock and opened the door to her new life" — but the point was at least as much to see what other people would do with them as what you would do with them yourself. (At one point I made up my own list and circulated it through the class to see what would come of it, an exercise the teacher condoned each of us try as well.)
Another analogous experiment in this vein was the old "make up a story about a picture" exercise. This was something I found myself doing on my own, where by way of grabbing a cutting from a magazine and working with that, or going into a museum. But sometimes it would be by way of taking a picture which was meant to describe something specific — e.g. a frame from a comic book — and divorcing it from its context so that I could start from scratch with it. Irony: When I first got into manga, it actually helped that I didn't know Japanese well (at first) — I could pick up a comic, zero in on a picture that captured my imagination, and play the "Who is this and what do they want?" game with nothing at all getting in the way.
From all this I derive a few key insights:
1) Images are a big spur for me. It's hard for me to "cast" people in a story without some kind of visual reference — looking at the picture allows them to come to life a little more completely in my mind. Yes, they would say that; no, they wouldn't do that; god no they would never eat there. It seemed like it wasn't I alone who could bring them to life; there had to be some door between me and them that I needed to open, and sometimes that door could only take the form of an image. In another life, I might well have been a comic artist. (I can barely draw a stick figure.) They don't have to be still images, either. They can be something that just flashes past in a trailer, as per The Matrix.
2) The number of images that provide inspiration for me are very small and few between. I can never tell ahead of time what it is about a picture that will set the sparks flying, so I have to keep my eyes as wide open as I can.
3) Most of what I get out of the picture is about attitude, personality, outlook. Not just what they look like, but what the look suggests to me about what it might feel like to sit down next to that person in a restaurant, what they might order, what kind of conversation they might have with the wait staff. And above and beyond that, all the other things that are important to a story: what they want, how they plan to get it, what they can't ever talk about until now. All the good stuff.