People Watching for Stories
I like to "People Watch" looking for my next Main Character. For example, one day, years ago, I was working at a T-shirt shop, downtown St. Augustine, and saw a little girl run past the fountain outside. She was smiling and having fun, but it struck me as interesting for some reason (probably because she looked so care free and I was stuck working on a beautiful sunny day) and I quickly got a pen and paper and jotted down some stuff:
Little girl, about 8 or 9, green dress, running... Those thoughts led to: "She ran past the fountain..." and that instantly got my muse's attention, "...frantically searching..." searching for what? Her parents? Her brother? Her dog? An escape route?
Oooohh, that's good! Escape from what?
She then became the goal, the Damsel in Distress, if you will, for a story that is turning into a novel that I'm working on. I started it during NaNoWriMo in November 2011, the first year in which, I was a winner. I still have much work to do on it, many hours of writing, (I made it to 50K words, to "win" NaNoWriMo, but the story's not done) editing and tweaking to complete before it's worthy of publishing, but still, a whole novel from one moment in time when I noticed a girl run past a fountain.
It's taken on a life of its own and is nothing like I had originally envisioned. I know I should outline my story, but that just seems too rigid for me. They characters in my stories rarely follow the outline, anyway, making their own paths. I just let the scenes play out in my head and I write what happens. I'm called what is termed a "Pantser" -- an author who writes by seat of their pants, rather than using an outline to guide the story.
If you need the structure of an outline, by all means, sketch one out after the initial Character Collection or Inspirational Epiphany.
Just be sure to collect those characters. There are so many out there who are unique, you can't miss them. They're in the line at the bank, walking on the side of the road, sunning themselves at the beach, wherever people are, you'll find a character for your next novel. I saw a very strange couple walking on the sidewalk one day, they looked so out of place, I had to pull over to write down the details. I've got them saved on my hard drive and they might possibly become the main characters come this November's NaNoWriMo or maybe this summer's Camp NaNoWriMo.
Just be observant and open to anything. You never know, a "character" that you find may not work for anything you're writing now, but down the road, you may find that you need the special flavor that only they can bring to a story.