People ask where I get my ideas, how do I come up with this and that. Do I have a system? A methodology? A prescription? Sadly, I do not. I am a creative person and have been surrounded by creative people my whole life, and here is what I can say. We don't have a flowchart, a rubric, or a spreadsheet. There is no method, no formula, no magic ritual. Ideas just come to us, out of thin air. Like drawing cards from a deck. At most, authors have certain exercises to encourage it, but that's all.
A little history.
I didn't like school. I was a dreamer with a wild imagination. They tried to take me apart and cram the pieces into a pigeon hole next to all the other sheep. The other kids thought I was weird for resisting. Needless to say, I was my own best friend.
The first fantasy novel that really got me hooked on the genre was Redwall by Brian Jacques. I read the whole series, some more than once. The other one that grabbed me was The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper. Truth be told, I don't remember the details at all, but what really mattered was the dark atmosphere, starkly contrasted with the fluffy crap kids are subjected to. This book showed me that we don't have to read fairy tales all the time.
Round about the age of fifteen I happened upon Dungeons and Dragons. I've always been a gamer. My father is a gamer. We got an Atari 2600 before I can remember. I've been going to board game clubs for decades. One day my father came home with a big stack of oversized cardboard sheets. I took a marker and turned each one into a board game, usually my own version of whatever NES game I was playing at the time. Games are based on rules, providing structure, balance, and strategy. The D&D books I soon amassed were highly influential on my writing career. They show you how to create protagonists, antagonists, settings and environments, conflicts, tension and drama. For me, they were the perfect mix of the fantasy worlds I'd read about, and the tactical rule-based systems of games.
I recently discovered Brandon Sanderson. He has an essay defining two methods of writing: hard and soft magic (the same idea applies to futuristic technology in sci-fi). Hard magic has rules that the audience clearly understands and the characters stick to. This enhances the realism and believability of the world. Soft magic is the opposite, the rules are not always clear, and this leads to the 'sense of wonder' that so many enjoy.
Personally, I much prefer the hard systems. The world of Apprentice was influenced by a great many games and I put a lot of time into the rules of the magical universe, but there were a couple other important factors:
In 2005 I started martial arts, Five Animal Kung Fu to be exact (a version of Hung Gar Shao Lin). One of their central philosophies was that each of the five animals was linked to an organ of the body and each had a particular hand motion associated with it. For example, snake is based on the stomach and uses rolling torso movements to drive the hands, striking with the fingertips like spears. Crane uses the kidneys, activated by twisting the hips, while the hands utilize subtle flicking motions where strength is unnecessary. My magic system uses these ideas almost verbatim.
The realms came about from watching too much sci-fi. I wanted to have different worlds, different places with new people and creatures, but without rewriting the laws of physics. I thought about using different planets, but not only would that make societal interactions impossible, but the characters would have untold difficulties with things like atmosphere, gravity, and biology. It was just too much. So I devised the realms. Each realm is a different version of Earth. Evolution is hugely reliant on chance and circumstance, the slightest change could have monumental repercussions. It only takes one strand of faulty RNA replication to affect an entire branch on the tree of life.
In my investigations into "real magic," I was struck by, of all things, Wiccanism. They use spells and hexes that most dismiss as mere superstition. Websites list spells for love, jobs, beauty, healing, cursing, etc, involving incense, herbs, and slightly-precious stones. Then I ran across a particular comment: "they only work if you believe they will." That made me stop and think. I don't subscribe to any of their religious practices, but that singular idea became the whole belief system in Apprentice: magic doesn't work if you don't believe in it.
1999: my sophomore year in college, came down with a nasty virus, lost my voice for 10 days straight, couldn't go to class, nearly delirious with cabin fever, said to myself "hey, I'll write a book!" I wrote 4 chapters, just to see how it treated me, then decided the project was good enough to finish. I thought at best I'd print out 10 copies to give to my friends.
2001: the original is done! I showed it to some English professors who helped me edit and said it was good enough to publish.
2002: I graduated with a degree in computer graphics and life began, supposedly. Apprentice got set aside. I had a string of lousy jobs, couldn't land anything substantial. I idly wondered about writing as a career path. At times I queried literary agents, but no one was interested.
2007: I decided to look for greener pastures and moved to China to teach English. Out here I get a free apartment, a 12 hour work week, and am revered as a "professor." What's not to like? (...don't answer that)
2010: I decide to completely rewrite my book. Before, it was a silly project, something to try out, but after thinking about it for 10+ years I realized that this is the best expression for my imagination, the greatest creative outlet I have. Its time to make it real.
2012: My cousin met Sean Sweeney, a self-published author, and later married him. We immediately hit it off.