Museum Staff: If you find someone working at a museum or history society or any kind of group that specializes in a particular area, ask them, “What’s something here that you think most people miss?” or “Why do you care about this particular subject?” or “Who is the most interesting person/piece featured here, in your opinion? Why?” In my experience, museum people are usually passionate and love the fact that you’re asking them something other than where to find the bathroom.
Notes on Posters: Look at notices on bulletin boards and see if anyone has penciled in a witty comment, corrected grammar, or otherwise marked up the content. One of my favorite examples of this was a “Muslim Beautique” ad pinned up on the bulletin board in the prayer room of a mosque. The clip art of a woman’s face was scribbled out, with “Pictures are not allowed in the prayer room” written beside it. In another handwriting, it said, “Images not intended to be worshipped are halel [acceptable].” There’s conflict here. There’s a story.
Olympic Sports: Or any kind of competition, really. Observe how the winners react, and how the losers do as well. Is the silver medalist disappointed, and if so, what does that mean? Think about what might motivate the athletes besides the obvious lure of winning. What would those motivations look like applied to other situations?
Pop Songs: Look up the lyrics for the current Top Ten songs and pretend—I know it’s a stretch, but stay with me—that the people involved in the song are really, really deep and interesting and someone just wrote out a simple version of their story and made it into a song. What plot might be going on between the lines?
Questions: Think about what would happen if you put a jar that said “Questions for God” in a hospital emergency room. Or a jar labeled “Questions for Rude Customers” in a diner. Or a jar with “Questions for My Parents” in an inner city junior high. If people could write anonymous questions in any of these situations, what would they ask?
Religious Texts: Read some. See where they agree and where they disagree. Are there differences between the text and how the practitioners of the faith actually live? If so, why? Plan a character who believes very strongly in a system of belief very different from another character. Where would the tension points be?
Soapboxes: Find out what people are really, really passionate about. Maybe it’s a pet peeve about a daily annoyance, an issue that always makes them join in a conversation, or a cause/group they would support until their dying day. People are most interesting when they care about something, and characters need to be interesting. Steal other people’s soapboxes for your characters, whether that’s the texting-abbreviations-are-lazy soapbox, the professional-athletes-are-paid-too-much soapbox, or even the we-didn’t-really-land-on-the-moon soapbox.
Textbooks: Open a science, history, or philosophy textbook to a random page and point to a paragraph. What would happen if there was a character who completely did not believe whatever that paragraph said was true? What if there was a character who based her whole life to convincing others of the fact you read?
Ugly Houses: What did they used to look like? How do they show the personality of the owners? What if your protagonist lived in a house like this?
Voices: Listen to them. Close your eyes if you like. How would you describe the sound? Why are some grating and others pleasant? What subtle changes in inflection totally alter the meaning of what is being said? Does sarcasm have a certain ring to it? How would you describe it?
Wanted Ads: Read them, and try to fill in the background story behind them. Why are they so desperate to sell everything at that garage sale? If their dog was so obedient and well-loved, why did it run away? Who would be the worst person to apply for that job?
X: Don’t be silly. I’m not going to make up something ridiculous here just to go in alphabetical order. There comes a point where being clever gets in the way of being helpful.
YouTube Comments: Find a video or two and read at least two dozen of the comments. Rewrite any debates as an interesting and somewhat intelligent debate between two people. Think about what the person writing might be like. Imagine you were the creator of the video and wanted to reply to every comment—what would you say?
Zoos: Watch the people instead of the animals. Who was dragged here by someone else? Who thinks animals are gross, and who is completely and totally fascinated by all of them? Who is showing off or needs a nap or thinks they’ll get the Perfect Parent of the Year award? Also, consider how humans are similar to and different from the animals they are observing.
Oops. That was only 12, because I skipped X.
Oh well. The last idea is a Free Space where you can come up with your own. Enjoy.