I feel like talking about inspiration today. I've seen interviews and articles where a writer talks about what inspires them, and invariably in the comments someone accuses them of just ripping off another show or book. Or sometimes you see this on fan sites for different books or TV shows. There's always someone complaining that whatever they're talking about is "just another Star Trek rip-off" or whatever.
Sometimes, this is obviously true (Not to pick on a certain "Madagascar" rip-off, but....). Other times there's a universality of themes. (Like the pictures you've seen around the internet comparing the plot lines of Harry Potter and Star Wars, or Avatar and Pocahontas.) There are only so many basic plot-lines. Pick a story, any story, and someone somewhere has told it before. What makes them interesting are the different characters, different settings, and different ways of telling them.
There's a difference between re-telling a story differently, and being inspired by it. A lot of the times when I see someone accused of "ripping-off" another story (and I've read both stories in question), I can see where the writer was inspired, but don't agree that the story was "just a cheap rip-off."
So, what is inspiration to me? To me, inspiration is not liking someones work so much that I just want to copy it, but being intrigued by an idea, or perhaps a minor detail, and then letting my imagination wander.
I often read fiction this way. I'll "see" a part of the setting that's only mentioned in the story to establish a location or attitude, or tell us something about a characters interests and I'll let my imagination wander off for a bit and explore before getting back to the main story.
So what inspires me? Just about everything, really. Star Trek is one example. If you've read the sample chapter of Meskka (link is to the right somewhere) then you see the similarity between the command structure on board a ship, and the positive outlook of the future, to name a few. This doesn't mean though, that I've just taken and re-named the characters and called it my own, or cloned anything verbatim.
I was originally going to list a few of the things that have inspired me most for Meskka, but thinking about it further I don't see the point. Inspiration is supposed to get the ball rolling, but not make up the main content. I really don't think about what inspires me until after the story is written, then when I'm editing I can see similarities. (Then I look specifically to make sure I didn't unconsciously steal material.)
Where do the rest of the ideas come from? To be honest, I have no idea. Parts of it are mis-mashes of a bit here, a piece from there, a "what if...", and sometimes an idea just pops into my head. I have an over-active imagination, it's fun to just let it run wild sometimes.