Thanks Norm, your info, and the article are extremely helpful!
Glad to help.
I looked at some 1gal plants at Home Depot earlier before I made the first post, but they seemed too big and bushy already and not dwarfy like a bonsai, but I guess that is my job
Yes that is the essence of creating a bonsai, to visualize and reveal the "inner bonsai" Don't discount the bushy plants though. Two important aspects of bonsai design are taper and movement, (repeated change of direction). These can be accomplished by cutting the top out of a bush plant and allowing a new leader to form from a low branch. Repeat this several times and you create an interesting trunk with taper and movement.
On the other hand you are right to be selective, there must be at least the beginning of a trunk-line. Sometimes these young plants have been pruned so low that there is no semblance of a trunk, avoid this type of material. Earlier I mentioned the term "nebari" this is the exposed surface roots that gives the impression of age and stability. Look for this and an attractive trunk-line. These are the at the heart of quality bonsai and are the first things to look for. Branches are, species dependent, easily re-grown, quality rootage and trunk-lines are not.
I'll keep reading and keep looking.
Continue your research, no need to rush. If you are serious about this it will be a life-long endeavor, a few weeks/months are of little consequence. Explore the rest of the Evergreen Garden Works web site, this can take quite some time to digest.
So I'm thinking I'll go to a bigger, better nursery and look at the 1 gallon potted gardenias and star jasmines and see if one (or more) of them wants to follow me home, or if anything else inspires me
Expect to spend some time and wear your work clothes. Dig around for surface roots. Look for an interesting trunk-line.
Then trim off up to 1/3 of the foliage to do some preliminary shaping, and then just let it recover for a couple months, right?
One of the mistakes I made early one was to reflexively remove all low branches. If you have a trunk that you are satisfied with OK, otherwise low branches serve to thicken the trunk and should be left alone, but then you will not be doing bonsai. So it all comes back to choosing quality material.
Winter is a safe time to prune, right?.. I live in southern CA, so the winters are very mild (frost extremely unusual, normal winter lows in the 50s) so I figure I can leave them outside, and then do some more shaping just before spring... Does this sound like the way to go?
A lot of this is dependent on what species you end up. Also since I am in a much different part of the country than you I hesitate to speak in generalities. It never hurts to slow down and do some research, I have made some first class blunders by acting first and researching second.
Oh, the suggestion of the Japanese apricot sounded lovely, are those hard to find? And as for pear, do you mean a regular pear, or do I need to look for a special dwarf version?
I can't really say what you might find in your area, go out and see. As far as using genetic dwarfs, it can be done but it is not a necessity. Bonsai are usually standard varieties and are dwarfed via cultural practices.