I'm partly writing this post to see if anyone else does this.
That is, consciously planting seeds in one's subconscious.
I'll explain. As we all know, our subconscious never shuts down. We dream at night; we discover the best comebacks after the moment has passed; we figure out the crossword clue days later. When our conscious mind goes off to other things, the subconscious keeps on rolling.
When I know I need/want to write something and I have only the foggiest idea of what my argument or approach might look like, I've discovered it's useful to do two things.
1) Write it out. While organizing papers last night, I discovered a few sheets that had my preliminary planning for thesis Chapter Two on them. One of them I had very boldly titled "Things I Know About Chapter Two" and contained really early notes on areas I wanted to cover, books I knew I needed to read, conclusions I thought I might draw. I've discovered that almost freewriting out or brainstorming ideas on purpose and on paper really helps me to think better and sparks off ideas that often make perfect sense, seemingly out of nowhere.
This is also how I came up with my Master's thesis topic. I knew I wanted to do a thesis (I had originally signed up for the shorter project-based course), but I didn't know what I wanted to do it on and I figured that if I was going to make English Department staff go to all the administrative trouble of helping me switch programs, I had better have a decent idea of what I wanted to do. So, I sat down with a piece of paper and wrote down the bits of English Literature that most interested me. On that list were the Brontes, the Gothic, and Heathcliff, which eventually led into my thesis on Gothic masculinity in three Bronte novels.
Most recently, I've used this scattershot method to try to shape a conference paper abstract whose deadline is not so very far away. I wrote down everything I thought might be interesting to talk about. And then I did Step Number Two.
2) Walk away and tell one's Subconscious to figure it out. I couldn't push my idea any further, so I left my scribbled-over notebook pages and quite sternly told myself to take those ideas and come up with an argument, or at least, a narrowed down, more complete version of my initial ideas. And lo and behold, later that day, I suddenly figured out the perfect primary work to use as the centre of my discussion. (Which then led to an exploration of the town centre of Kidlington, as I already owned the book I wanted to use, but hadn't brought it to the UK with me. So, off we went to the public library to pick it up). Now, I still have to write the abstract and, if it's accepted, the paper itself, but my subconscious certainly seemed to have done something with the seeds I planted.
I think this is another area where academic writing and creative writing overlap, but it's hard to say. As Robin McKinley has said in essays, the imagination (at least, mine) is not nearly as "biddable" as my academic writing brain. But I'm trying. I've told my subconscious that after Belladonna is finished and, hopefully, out on submission, I would really like it to come up with a nice juicy Victorian-style ghost story or sensation fiction sort of plot. I'll just have to wait and see what it comes up with. (I should also mention that I've been trying to help it along by reading Wilkie Collins, Sheridan Le Fanu, and M.R. James...)