Coffee House Rules

One thing I’ve discovered about writing is that where you write can have a huge impact on what you write.

If I’m writing at home, I tend to move around the house over the course of the day. I think there’s some sort of migration instinct at work. Birds fly south in the autumn – I move upstairs in the afternoon.

But it’s fairly rare for me to spend a whole day writing at home; I do find that I’m more productive if I’m out and about. Maybe it’s because, whatever you’re writing about, you’re writing about people and life and the ways we connect with the world around us – so when there’s life going on around you, it feeds into your writing.

Half-heard conversations in coffee shops can be a wonderful source of those little details and habits that bring written dialogue to life. And not just conversations – people walking past, people reacting to things going on around them, people meeting, people parting. All those little bits of life to which we don’t necessarily give much thought – they can be invaluable when it comes to making a scene snap off the page.

I’ve therefore become something of a connoisseur of cafes. The problem is that, in the same way that I like to drift around the house over the course of the writing day, different coffee shops appeal to me, depending on my mood and what type of writing/editing I’m doing.

It’s hard to put your finger on exactly what it is that makes a particular coffee shop a good place to write. There are a few obvious requirements:

  • It has to be easy to get to, so you don’t finish up giving up and going home when you can’t find a parking space that doesn’t involve you shouldering a CamelBak of water and setting off on an ultra-marathon to get to your favourite writing spot, or spending three days with a selection of local bus timetables, planning a one hour writing session with the kind of precision usually associated with major military campaigns.
  • It has to be reasonably priced. HMRC are surprisingly inflexible when it comes to expenses, and three hundred and sixty-four* cappuccinos for one is unlikely to be an item that passes muster.

*Most cafes are closed on Christmas Day

  • There has to be a reasonable possibility of you being able to secure your favourite table/sofa/window seat on any given day. This will avoid you smouldering balefully at the wrong table, not writing and thinking up horrible fates for the entirely innocent lady who has dared to sit in your preferred spot.
  • Busy-ish. Too quiet and you might as well have stayed home. Empty cafes are surprisingly distracting. You keep feeling like you ought to go home and then maybe the manager would lock up and give the staff the rest of the day off. Too busy and you’ll be the one on the receiving end of the baleful glares, until you give up, relinquish your table and slink off home.
  • Full of nice people. People who aren’t offended by the mere idea of someone using
    Come on, people, entertain me

    a laptop within quarter of a mile of them. People who won’t glower at you when you’ve brought the baby along to lie on the sofa and people-watch while you sweat over a deadline that has gone from la la la loads of time to aaaaaaaargh at a speed which suggests that there’s something a bit quantum* going on. Ideally people who come over and say ‘Hello, I couldn’t help but notice that you are writing. As a lifelong lover of literature I would like to offer to look after your baby while you finish your Very Important Project**. Then I would like to make a pre-emptive seven figure offer for your Very Important Project as I happen to be, not only a lover of literature and babies, but also in charge of a major film production company and I am currently scouring the cafes and tea rooms of this country, searching for the Next Big Thing. That’s you, by the way. Also, please let me give you a shoulder massage while you work.’ People who, when the deadline has got so aaaaaaargh that you finish up delegating all    parenting responsibilities for the baby to the seven-year old, and all parenting responsibilities for the four-year old to the ipad, do not tut and glare and squeeze their eyebrows together in the universal sign for Bad Parent alert! Everybody look at the Bad Parent. Her children are eating cake and looking at a screen. Someone bring a bundle of nettles with which to mortify her flesh. If you think the latter is likely to happen with any sort of regularity, it might be an idea to find a café with a layout that allows you to continue to supervise your children out of the corner of your eye, while at the same time pretending they are nothing to do with you, and joining in the tutting and eyebrow-glaring.

*   no, I have no idea what quantum actually means

** this does sometimes happen. Not the film and massage stuff – just the baby cuddling

  • Just…nice. You know. Possessing that indefinable quality that makes a café go from quite pleasant to capable of inspiring forsaking all others levels of writerly devotion. Where th
    A cafe with a view

    e staff smile when you come in, and offer you extra hot water to make your pot of tea last longer. Where fellow regulars stop to chat to the baby, or to ask how aaaaaaargh things are today. The kind of place where you just know that the man frowning over his laptop at that table in the corner is a fellow writer. The kind of place you want to put in the credits of your first book. The kind of place where you can leave your stuff on the table while you pop to the loo without that slightly panicky, sweaty-palmed feeling, in case you come back and someone’s swiped your laptop, complete with your Very Important Project. The kind of place where they’re pleased for you when you finish your book – and not just because then you might go away and stop eating them out of house, home and Victoria Sponge. If you do find such a paragon of café niceness, treat it well. Don’t hog tables during the lunchtime rush, while drinking nothing but tap water. Don’t glower at anyone who dares to talk while you are thinking Important Thoughts. Smile sympathetically at parents whose offspring are apparently immune to shushing, and determined to get one more verse of The Wheels on the Bus in before they are removed from the café. In short, when a café is nice to you, be nice back.


So I thought I’d put together some reviews of my favourite writing places, in case any fellow writers feel like dropping in. I’ll be the one either getting distracted by a baby, or beaming all over my face at the prospect of a couple of child-free hours, during which I can drink a cup of tea while it’s hot, and use two hands to eat my food.

Watch this space…


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