I've been writing seriously for a relatively short time (about four years or so) and although my fiction isn't published yet, that doesn't mean I have stopped writing and trying to submit. It's like any other profession - unless you put in the effort, you won't see the results.
But that's not what this post is about. I thought I'd give away a little bit of the secret of "how I do it". My techniques may work for some, and may be completely off base for others. Take my advice for what it is - that of an unpublished writer, struggling to get my fiction out into the world.
I get my story ideas from many different places; I tend to eavesdrop on the conversations of strangers, I people-watch, I like to look at fantsay art, and I watch a lot of historical/educational programming on channels like TLC, the Discovery Channel, the History Channel, etc.
Each of these sources spur very different story types. I'm going to run through each of them, and give you an idea of what I'm talking about and how I've gotten ideas from them in the past:
1. Eavesdropping and people-watching
For the dialogue-driven writer, this method can be invaluable. If a certain phrase or snippet of conversation you've overheard is the basis of a story for you, you know what I'm talking about. I don't use this method myself very often, as my characters are usually created first and it's their conversations that get the ball rolling, but I know of many authors who swear by this method.
2. Fantasy Art
This is my biggest inspiration for short story writing. I can find a piece of fantasy art that I like (usually from someone like Boris Villejo or Julie Bell) and then I ask questions of myself about it. If the artist has written a description of the picture detailing what he or she thinks it's about, I usually avoid that - after all, the story will be about what I thnk the picture's about. I ask questions like, "What was he/she doing to get here?", "What is he/she going to do next?", and "What events that have happened or will happen are influencing what's happening to this person?". The best by far, however, is the good 'ole "What if..." question. Take the answers you give yourself for these questions (and any others you may ask yourself about the picture) and voila! You've got a story! Now. Go write it.
3. Television Programs
A lot of my longer works have been inspired by educational or historical documentary-type TV programs. I love watching TLC, Discovery, the History Channel and the Travel Channel. I may not incorporate ancient Egypt into my work in progress (WIP), but I will take elements I've learned from the programs and incorporate them into my WIP. It helps to make your world and the people who populate it feel "more real" when you base them on actual places or cultural norms. Also, you've got a handy reference for your world or culture you can look at any time you need to for that added bit of detail. And people say TV's bad for you. Pshaw.
These are only a few of the tools I've used over the years to develop my skill. As I'm becoming more and more serious about writing as a career and not just a "hobby", I find I'm developing more and more skills every day, learning new things about writing in general and my own style, as well. As a writer, we must learn to adapt. Adapt to everything from family and job situations to our own inner moods.
I hope this has helped a little for any of those who know they have the talent and the ability, but are struggling with the source.