Story ideas don't generally come to me whole, but in pieces. Particularly with short stories, I feel like I collect parts of stories from the world around me, and then the ideas settle through my head until parts that match well suddenly stick together. These parts generally include premise, setting, and characters.
A premise might be something like "humans try to make first contact with aliens but have difficulty for cultural reasons," or "two boys can fly but don't know it because that ability is being taken from them, and they want to run away." With some premises, a lot of work goes into designing setting, including environment, technology level, language, religion and other factors from scratch. With others, I can use existing settings and time periods, but it takes about the same amount of time as working from scratch because of the extensive research required.
Characters are the center of everything for my stories. If I have a premise or setting that excites me, I always try to create a character who is maximally entangled in the properties of his or her surroundings, so that the character's point of view does a lot of work for me in establishing setting details (thus I attempt to minimize the dreaded infodumps). Once I have a character right, that person comes alive to me and may act independently of my authorly plans.
As I see it, I work on several levels when I write a story. On the editorial and analytical side are "grand plan," "events," "mental state," and "word" levels as follows:
- "Grand plan" means the structural outlining, including determining where the story must start and end to maximize its effectiveness.
- "Events" means the basic sense of how one thing follows another in the story, including the logistics of traveling from one setting to another.
- "Mental state" tracks the knowledge content and psychology of the various characters from one stage of the story to the next, so that their motivations and judgments keep the story driving forward. This is why I generally write stories in chronological order.
- "Word level" is about keeping point of view solid and making sure to maintain consistency for a character's use of metaphor and simile in a way that matches his or her age and experiential background.