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?

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It makes sense

Roses - Ece on Sovalye Fethiye TurkeyI’ve just returned from a trip to Turkey’s stunningly beautiful Lycian Coast. Whilst it was most definitely a holiday, I went, notebook in hand, to refresh my memory and inspire my senses. ‘My first novel’ – its working title, by the way, is Singled Out – is set in Turkey, along this same coastline and I was looking for fine detail.

I carry my writer’s notepad around with me whenever I go out. I occasionally jot odd things down – a few notes whilst I’m sitting in a coffee shop perhaps. It still feels a bit writerly and pretentious, but I expect it may feel more natural in time. Last week in Turkey things took a big leap forward. My notepad, smeared with suntan oil, became a sponge, soaking up my sensory experience, absorbing everything.

I realised as I filled its pages, how inert ones memories of a place can become. It’s easy enough to pick up an old photograph and see what a raggedy coastline looks like, or a market, or an ancient ruin. But when you’re there, you smell the pine and the citrus, the sweat and cigarettes; you see the gnarly knuckles and the stained aprons; you hear the wail of the muezzin’s prayer and watch the sun radiate from the golden dome of a mosque; you feel the sting of perspiration as it trickles into your eye and savour sweet green peppers and succulent tomatoes under a canopy of twisted vines. Oh, I could go on… and on…

I saw and smelled, tasted and touched, listened to and noticed . . . everything; from sea breezes and sunsets to frogs in a pond and fields of pomegranates; from breakfast buffets to sizzling sea bass; from buzzing mopeds to hissing sprinklers and barking dogs.

But here was the surprise. I’d expected this to be something of a chore, interrupting my lazy sunshine holiday like homework you have to finish before you go back to school after the summer break. But this conscious, purposeful sensory exposure enriched my vacation in a thousand ways I hadn’t expected. It heightened every sense, turned up the volume and sharpened the dazzling, vibrant panorama that is contemporary Turkey – a country I’ve grown to love over many years.