It usually begins with a question.
The question follows a “What if…?” format. As in, “What if there were these knives that could cut through the fabric of dimensions?” which led to the first trilogy I ever wrote (and no, I hadn’t read His Dark Materials by that point).
I find that noticing the minutia in the world around me usually sparks my imagination. When I walk(ed) to classes, or work, or when I was riding passenger on a trip somewhere, I wouldn’t zone out or engage in small talk with anyone around me. (I was that guy.)
Instead, I would notice how a stranger passing me would walk, or how the sun hid behind the clouds, or a million other little things. I remember once, I was walking and swinging my hand and I thought, “What if there was a person who could store kinetic energy from swinging their arm as thermal energy and then release it?”
(Keep in mind that 99% of these ideas are absolute crap.)
Regardless, I seize on a “What if…” question, and if it’s good enough, it continues to occupy me. “What if there was a society with a single rule governing its existence, but when the people were asleep they entered a dream realm where that rule is gone or reversed?” That question led me to this: “What if there was a society with a rigid social hierarchy, but while they slept the hierarchy was inverted somehow?”
And then to this: “What if this society had a lower-class citizen, an ox-man (Qunari anyone?) who is physically empowered but is delegated to menial labor tasks? And what if this race of people served as bodyguards against ‘the boogeyman’ or some other nightmare creature that haunts the dreams of the rich, weak suckers who rule the society?”
This became the premise for the closest I have ever come to a good novel, entitled Sleeper. (One of these days when I’m not feeling self-conscious I will post it on here.) The kudrans are these massive brutes who, to the rest of the races, are strong but stupid. Secretly, they’re extremely prideful, but tie pride into physical prowess, not money or power, and so they don’t mind doing the heavy lifting for the rich folks (I call them operans).
When the whole world falls asleep, they enter a dream state haunted by real-life nightmares. I’ve shamelessly stolen the word incubi and reappropriated it, without any of the weird sexual connotation (see above for some art drawn by the incredibly talented Lindsay Liegler). The incubi try to seek out and kill the operans in the dream world, which results in them waking up insane in the real world. Kudrans work as “Sleepers”, dream bodyguards, for wealthy operan families.
Until that one time when they don’t.
(When did this become a plug?)
I’m straying from my point. I agree with most authors that there is no single process to writing a book. But if you’re struggling with that first concept, whether it’s a short story, a poem, a novel, or an epic high fantasy neverending series of Sanderson proportions, maybe just try looking around. There’s a lot more interesting stuff in the real world than we give it credit for.