Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Temptation Tuesday - Coffee Shops

PHS Columnist Kate Walker talks about one of her favourite places for doing nothing - ahem - research - aka people watching - and relaxing.

When my husband (the Babe Magnet) and I first met, we were both students at the University of Wales Aberystwyth. Neither of us had much in the way of personal living space. I had a room (originally shared with 2 other girls) in a hall of residence and the Magnet shared ‘digs’ with friend, again having on e room between them. Even when I finally got my own flat we still spent a lot of time meeting up in the popular coffee bar called The Cabin. The coffee was good, they sold cheap food - mainly cheese pancakes! – and we could spend hours keeping warm on someone else’s bills, talking and people watching. Even though I wasn’t a writer – well, apart from essays on D H Lawrence, the Bronte sisters and Jane Austen etc, I always loved just sitting at watching people come and go.

I still do. Only this morning, in town after doing all the various jobs I had on my list, I joined the magnet in our local Costa and we sat together over a medium Americano (me) and a medium cappuccino (him), chatting desultorily and watching what was happening. Watching and listening. This particular coffee shop happens to be one of the best for the really good stuff for a novelist. The tables are close enough together that you can catch snatches of the conversation at different tables nearby so that if there is something really interesting you can tune out the other people’s words and focus on that one. And the coffee shop itself has a wonderful huge plate glass window that looks out on to one of the busiest parts of town so that you can watch people coming and going, see what they’re wearing, who they’re talking to, what mood they’re in.

It’s all great research for an author. . You can get to be intrigued by the people who are meeting friends/relatives/strangers? You can start to recognise when he (or she) is ‘just not that into him or her’ and there is a break up coming very close on the horizon. You can see new relationships just starting out awkwardly and uncertainly, and have your heart warmed by long-long-term a Mr and Mrs sitting companionably together as they have done for years. You can study the clothes that people wear, their shoes, the way they do their hair, their makeup. And you can watch the gestures, their expressions. You learn so much about body language as well as the way people speak. And if you visit different towns, cities, countries, you can absorb so much of the local ‘flavour’ by just sitting and watching. I've lingered for hours in coffee shops in York, London, Dublin, Sydney, New York, Washington, San Franciso, Funchal . . ..

And if you’re really lucky you can overhear a snippet of conversation that might spark off a new idea. Just this morning I heard a woman telling her friend of the fact that her mother in law had just died and the intriguing poem that they had found in her locker at the hospital. She thought that her mother had written the poem, though I recognised it, and looking it up later found that these were the first few lines –
What do you see, nurse... what do you see?
Are you thinking - when you look at me:
"A crabbed old woman, not very wise;
Uncertain of habit with far-away eyes,

(You can read the whole poem here if you’re interested.)
It’s intriguing that the story that goes with this poem is that the poem was reportedly written by a woman who died in the geriatric ward of Ashludie Hospital near Dundee, Scotland. It was found among her possessions and so impressed the staff that copies were made and distributed to every nurse in the hospital. But the woman telling her friend about it was claiming it for her mother in law. But that’s the sort of thing that can spark off an idea for a story. What if the old lady had written the poem – what if she turned out to have been a famous and beautiful poet a long, long time ago. A poet who wrote under a particular pseudonym – someone everyone had forgotten about. What if the heroine of my story went to hunt down a man that the old lady had written love poems to . . . Or just how sad it was that she felt the need to write down that particular poem at that particular time . . .

Thinking about this blog post, and knowing that it was coming up, I noted down the first three snatches of conversation that caught my attention – the first was the one about the poem and I was so intrigued by that that I almost missed anything else! The next one was another rather poignant one –
‘And there was nothing there at all to make it homely. No cushions, not even a bath mat.’

And the final one was one that I heard as I was heading out the door. ‘I don’t know why he was making such a fuss. I mean, I would have paid fifty times that to get my hands on it.’ Fifty times how much? To get his hands on what?

This is all part of what I call the writer as magpie. And it’s why I always always have a notebook and pen with me in my handbag, ready to note down a line or two, a description, an image that I may want to use later. It’s one of the things that always intrigues people when they find out that you’re a writer – the question that almost always follows immediately is – ‘where do you get your ideas?’ Ideas? They’re all around me – and I get a lot of them just sitting in coffee shops. Next weekend I’m visiting Oxford – and I already know which coffee shops I’m going to be sitting in. And there will be a lot of new material for me to research while I’m there.

The only problem is that sometimes the people -watching becomes so addictive that I forget I actually have a book to write.

Kate Walker's latest Presents release is The Konstantos Marriage Demand which was published in Mills & Boon Modern on January 15th. It will be out on Presents EXTRA in March and is already available for pre-sale on eHarlequin.com. Romantic Times called this a ‘ terrifically well-paced and fiery romance’ with a ‘very rewarding conclusion,’ and chose it as one of their series romance Top Picks for March.

One of Kate’s earlier books, The Twelve Month Mistress is also featured in a brand- new ebook 'Bundle' - one of the Blogger Bundles now available on eharlequin.com. This is a special selection of favourite Presents authors chosen by We Write Romance.
You can find out more about Kate and her books by visiting
her web site or get the really up to date news on her blog.


  1. Wonderful comment Kate. Going to bed after watching the Fashion Police.

    Here's a nice place for blogs to post their contests. etc: http://winabook.westofmars.com/

  2. Hi Marilyn. Hope you slept well

    Thanks for the link

  3. Great post - I was smiling all the way through it because I do exactly the same :o)

  4. Kate, loved the pic of Bewley's...! Great post, I'm exactly the same and regularly drive people mad by getting lost in someone else's conversation and neglecting my own!
    x Abby

  5. Kate, I loved this post - it rang so many bells. The other place that is wonderful for the author-magpie is the hairdresser......

  6. Hi Kate - great blog. I love eavesdropping - the office is a good place to start, but when I worked in London the Tube -especially at night (drink loosens the tongue) - was always a *great* source of nosiness! Have a good day! Caroline x

  7. Thanks T'other Kate! I knew another author would ecognise the coffee shop experience

  8. Abby of course I had to include a pic of Bewleys - though of course when we're together it's not coffee we drink! As anyone who's read the dedication to The Konstantos Marriage Demand will have noted! And I know exactly what you mean about getting lost in someone else's conversation . . .

  9. Oh Sarah - the hairdressers? Only sometimes - or perhaps it's that my hairdresser is always so busy chatting determinedly to me that i don't get to hear really interesting conversations there. My visit yesterday was spent listening to the woman next to me discussing the best place to buy towels! (Primark aparently!)

  10. Hi Caroline - I agree - the Tube - or beses or trains are great places to eavesdrop too. As I'm on a 4 hour train journey on Thursaday I shall hope to put that into practise. See you soon - in Fishguard.