Back to the Notepads

We hear all the time about writers settling down in coffee bars to write. But something else happens for me when I sit with a bowl of my favourite dark roast, watching and listening – and filling up my notepads.

A Writer's NotepadA couple of years ago I was drinking coffee at a table outside a cafe close to Earls Court, keeping an eye out for a friend who would emerge from the station over the road. I had a little time to wait. Like any good writer (irony, okay?) I started noting the sights, sounds and smells, but my imagination took the setting and wandered off into the first few lines of a story. Here’s what I scribbled in my notepad that day:

The spring air smells of coffee grounds and Gauloises; buses stutter to a stop, spewing diesel; mobile advertising hoardings promoting the latest action adventure, thriller blockbuster; sun blasts the bus shelter, a blinding glare; there’s a cemetery opposite, a land of death and loss; light and dark; crowds of foreign students jostle, yabbering, excitable; a pair of Japanese ladies, prim and bewildered; a queue of builders buying sandwiches, overwhelming the cramped cafe in their day-glo jackets and steel-capped boots… Watching… something happens… what? An accident? A crime? A car pulls up, screeching, a rear door opens and a man is shoved out into the street. He lands in a heap in the gutter. He clutches a manila folder to his chest. He’s bleeding from somewhere – a sticky ooze leaks from between his fingers. The car wheel-spins and vanishes. For a moment, no one moves. One of the builders sets his coffee and sandwich bag on the table and wanders over. ‘You alright, mate?’ he asks. The man groans. A BMW whooshes by, blue lights flashing in its grille. Back inside the cafe, someone is on the phone summoning an ambulance. Dazed, the man lets go of his folder, leaving a bloody handprint across the cover. A breeze catches it and it flaps open, drifting beyond his reach. A dozen sheets of paper fan out, hovering just above the tarmac before another bus draws up, sending them spilling down the road. The man moans, ‘no… oh no…’.

That’s as far as I got before my friend arrived. I don’t know if that moment, with its mix of reality and imagination will ever enter a story. But having written it down it remains vivid, rather than floating away like so many thoughts and ideas.

A few weeks ago, and I was in another coffee bar in a provincial town – yes, I confess, I have a coffee bar habit. I sat alone with my back to a table occupied by three people; an elderly lady and a middle-aged man and woman. It transpired that the middle-aged pair were brother and sister and the elderly lady, their mother.

I wish I could have taken verbatim notes of the conversation, but it seemed a little obvious. So instead I listened and absorbed, whilst trying to keep my jaw from dropping to the tabletop. The brother and sister each with their different agendas, were, in a well-mannered but very insistent way, working their mother over in an effort to persuade her to release part of their inheritance to alleviate their currently compromised financial situations. There was a business in difficulty; there were school fees to be paid; the burden of mortgages and so on. And all could be made right by the early deployment of the older woman’s money.

I imagine conversations like this take place quite a lot – especially these days.   I can understand the pressures which lead to adult children approaching their parents for help. What astonished me was that this conversation took place in public, within earshot of a dozen people – in a public coffee bar – in public.

It got me thinking; not so much about the inheritance issue, although that could certainly form the basis of an intriguing narrative. But instead the thought that a personal conversation – one that should have taken place out of earshot of anyone – a conversation overheard in a coffee bar, could open the door to a story, and pretty much any kind of story at that.

I’m trying to get together some ideas for my second novel – wondering all the while what will be the fate of the first. That’s why I’ve turned to my notepads. Here I’ve found the details of several more places where I’ve passed a few minutes over food or drink, or days of leisure; a detailed description of a spectacular barn conversion completed by the friend of a friend, painful notes on an excruciating weekend away (everything is material for the writer); characters from all sorts of places whose visual appearance or mannerisms have made an impression, tastes and sounds, and several, several other moments in time. I don’t take anywhere near as many notes as writers should (I imagine), but even so, I’m already amassing quite a diverse selection of what one might think of as springboards, creatively speaking.

Springboards are all very well, but when one can write about absolutely anything, when one can create whatever kind of a story one wants, and bring to life whatever collection of characters one cares to imagine, the question is this… where… where… where on earth do I begin?

21 thoughts on “Back to the Notepads

  1. Would love to be able to write like this! I was just thinking maybe you could combine the two and write a crime novel! Day shortly after their conversation the woman dies.
    Perhaps the folder the man is carrying contains his mother’s will. He’s stolen it to edit iy. As she discolsed he wasn’t getting much. But he’s not the only one who wants it. Perhaps she wasn’t as sweet and innocent as her elderly frame suggests. Maybe she had a secret son and was paying off the adoptive family to keep quiet? Or maybe she has a sordid past and got entangled with people who she had been blackmailing foe money. (Say she knew about a murder) and now that she was gone they want their money back! Lol. Got carried away. Very promising! Will stay tuned!

    1. Wow! I love it! But isn’t this the fabulous fun of writing, that you can start with a moment, or the grain of an idea, and take it absolutely anywhere you choose.

  2. I’m very impressed with the story beginnings you found in your notepad. If that’s your typical quality when writing a first draft, I’m very jealous!
    As to your question, where do you begin? What interests you? What do you hate? What injustices do you want to bring to people’s attention or what glories? What are your fears or desires?
    Whatever you choose, make sure there is enough in there to keep your passion for the story going long after the love of writing it fades, because that is the thing that will drive you to completion.

    1. All good questions, Dylan. And you’re so right about the need to keep the passion going, as the fun part becomes the properly hard work. As for my man-being-pushed-out-of-a-car starter for ten, I confess I was quite pleased with that little clutch of thoughts! I was on my way to a writerly event at the time, so perhaps my creative juices were particularly active.

  3. I never go to coffee shops to write because I treasure my silence. But after reading your post and those of others with a similar theme, I realized the point of going there is not necessarily to bury my head in my laptop and write, but rather to sit back and soak up the environment around me. As you point out, useful fodder for our fiction abounds there.

    1. I agree entirely re the need for peace and quiet to write, for me, coffee shops are for me and my notepad.

  4. Quality snippets from your notebooks Jools. I spent a good deal of my last trip around Colombia noting and soaking up places, people and moments for my next novel. You can’t beat getting out into the world and opening yourself to inspiration.

    1. I did the same in Turkey last year and it proved invaluable to adding colour to several scenes in Singled Out. All sorts of things we barely notice in passing, are recorded and banked so we can dip into our reserve whenever we need. I used to think the whole writerly notepad thing was a bit pretentious – but not any more!

  5. Thank you for the inspiration. I am reading your blog in a coffee shop and you have inspired me to close down the iPad order another brew and release my notebook. I love working with notebooks. Laptops, and iPads are for working. Notebooks are for creating.

    1. Inspiration comes from many sources, and I’m delighted that I had some to offer you in my post! I’ve always enjoyed those moments where we can sit and watch the world go by – be it in a bar, a cafe or the ubiquitous coffee shop. The parade of everyday that passes before our eyes offers a rich harvest of sights, sounds, tastes and smells. I’m always amazed by how much better I remember a time, place or person, when I have scrawled a few notes down – even if I haven’t read back through them for many months.

  6. Interesting as always my dear lady. I guess at times we must all suffer a period of time when we cannot do what we want to with much fluidity. I have to say Jools that when I get stuck I find it most helpful to write poetry for a short while so I can resume my regular writing again. Works for me. Our brains don’t always do what we want do they? But by all means start your work on your second book as the first one is done and waiting to be discovered. That will take care of itself. Who knows, maybe your second will prove to be even better than the first and take off. You have a beautiful mind with so much passion never stop what you do so well.

    1. I know I write smoothly when I’m ‘in the zone’, but when the writing process stutters and stalls, it’s like an engine – it needs a jump-start to get it going again. That’s my current challenge. Such lovely words again from you, BillP. 🙂

    1. Perry, I was thinking I can’t believe I didn’t see this! But then I realised it only came out yesterday, so now I don’t feel so bad. I love it – and my own growing collection of notepads. Would you believe, I have scrap ones and neat ones and certain gems migrate from scrap to neat, so I can be sure not to lose them. I have ones that I’ve ‘pimped up’ which are too delicate to travel around in my handbag, and a whole drawer-full of plain brown, corporate branded (freebies!) and cute giftie ones too. I’m holding on to them for when I become a globally renowned besteselling author and people actually care what I’ve been writing in them 😉

        1. What a great post! Thanks for putting me (and everyone else) on to it. I particularly liked her use of multi-coloured gel pens – that’s a good one.

  7. Actually I do write down what I hear people say and they never notice. If you take another book with you, open it, glance at it occasionally, they just think you’re studying that. Terribly sneaky. But hey, you’ve not miked them up, or bugged the table, or sitting on their laps, so it’s public stuff. The thing I like about people’s conversations is not so much what they say, but the way they overlay each other. It’s really helpful in structuring fictional conversations. Great post. Thanks.

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