On Writing Detail…Or, Observations of a Coffee Shop

A writer does many things, but one of the most important acts of writing is detail, whether it be the detail in setting, dialogue, characters, or the action carrying the plot. Being able to observe thus becomes a handy writer’s skill, since the most random of observations can spark an idea, a character, or a scene that we tend to excitedly and passionately write down.

My colleague friend mentioned that she thought writers in coffee shops were intriguing—seeing as how they’re observing all the people and sounds—and the idea soon landed me in the cushiest of brown chairs at one of my local Starbucks. In honor of my friend’s comment, I thought I’d practice the art of observation today. Whether I gain a clever new character to add to a future story or simply convey the mysterious clientele of an overly populated coffee chain, then the experience feels like good practice, and one I recommend to anyone to improve observation of detail in the sights, sounds, and smells around us.

On the occasion I decide to play the writer-in-the-coffee-shop game, I usually pick this Starbucks. I prefer it for many reasons: the staff is friendly, the drinks are consistent, and—since I’m like most American women with any pulse at all—I appreciate that members of the city fire department often stop by…because they make me feel safe. (I swear.) <Cough.>

Back to the task at hand. To my left is a women of about fifty, her dark skin covered in freckles and a skinny beige textbook resting in her lap. She rubs her chin as she ponders her reading, steadily erasing in her notebook as she works on what appears to be a math assignment. (Since I’m a math teacher by day, I find this detail particularly amusing.) The woman scribbles on her notebook in neat little rows, each character written with perfect penmanship despite her numerous erase marks and her repeated interruptions to stroke her chin. Soon she switches to touching her abalone shell earrings before frowning, then meticulously erases again. I’m half-tempted to offer to help her with the problems, but she breaks her studies to answer her phone, speaking in a quiet, monotone voice. I wonder why she might be taking classes at this point in her life and assume she’s probably had a lot of life experience before embarking on further education. Perhaps she has a family at home with six kids, each of them dragging their feet as they made their way to adulthood, and now that they’ve finally moved out it’s her turn to go back to school. Or, maybe she needs to improve her skill set for a job, and her employer threatened to replace her with the younger, peppier staffer he just hired last week if she didn’t.

There are a variety of ideas that spring to mind as she peeks curiously in my direction, but I coyly glance to the counter so as not to stare.

A man donning grey weathered cargo pants with several chains dangling off the sides just got in line, his bottom half oddly contrasting the white collared, button-up shirt that he’s closed clear up to his neck. He wears a black embroidered baseball cap and talks to the baristas with a random high-pitched laugh. These sorts of conflicting details often make for the most intrigue in a character, and when he turns to face the rest of the cafe, he scans over us with uncomfortably pinched blue eyes. He folds his wallet and slips it back into his left pocket, the lines in his forehead forming a multitude of zigzagging rows, and then sneaks away to the bathroom where his female companion emerges. She brushes back her black cropped hair, then plays with the zipper on her white hooded sweatshirt and speaks to him as he closes the door. Her candy-colored lips move in a lazy speech and I hear, “I don’t think so,” among a few other inaudible sentences, to which the man casually shuts the door with a roll of those startling eyes. Once he exits they scoot out of the shop as quickly as they came in, sending a grumpy scowl at one another when they pass a man at a window table.

This man wears a multi-colored beanie and a pair of earphones that he tugs at with a smile, his posture behind his laptop more relaxed than that of most anyone in here. He taps his foot to his music against his bag, its contents strewn casually on the floor. So into his music, he barely notices the sounds of the coffee grinding and brewing, the gentle whirring sound of the milk as it’s steamed, the baristas talking about the fact that someone named Kim didn’t show up for her shift on time and how Alex is going to “fire her ass,” or the fact that the woman behind him just knocked the last of her coffee onto the floor, the liquid making a slow drip, drip, drip onto the dirty gray tile just behind him…

The man bops his head, adjusting his cap once, twice; he stops typing to read what’s in front of him on the screen. His green-grey eyes scan the view, then he types again, reads, and types before glancing at me. We smile at one another, then go back to our respective computers. Perhaps he’s a professional working on a presentation, or a teacher typing his lesson plan, or a student working on a paper—or perhaps he’s a writer just like me, observing everything around him, jotting it down, committing it to memory, and playing with these details as the basis for a character for the next piece, while a little nondescript folk rock plays through the speakers overhead.

One can never tell if the characters observed are something to write from, but the process of digesting all these details is always a good practice for any writer, novelist, poet, or journalist alike.

For the moment, I might offer to help the woman next to me as I take the last few sips of my tea….

…but it looks like the fire truck just pulled into the parking lot.

About Eva Rieder

Eva Rieder is a speculative and contemporary/mainstream fiction author. By day, she masquerades as a high school Math and English teacher. Though she adores teaching and her students very much, when Eva returns home she reglues her fingertips to the keyboard to pursue her alter ego’s destiny. She currently lives and writes in Northern California with her two keyboard-savvy cats. View all posts by Eva Rieder

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