The Second Draft, Revision: Beyond the Coffee Shop with Tracey Kathryn
I didn’t become a coffee drinker until my forties. How did I survive without it? I’m an early bird, so coffee, my computer, and my characters are what I’m about at five o’clock in the morning. Also, I love local coffee shops. They’re great places to meet friends and make notes about writing projects. (I can’t write in public spaces, though. Too distracting. When I write, it has to be in a quiet spot without noise or diversion.)
I’m a member of a writer’s group where we share chapters of our mystery-novels-in-progress. We have different writing styles, characters, and plots, but one location we write about is similar: The coffee shop.
Coffee shops are our “third place.” A home-away-from-home where every part of our lives is discussed. Or where life events occur. We visit such places to support one another, share ideas, and of course, order our favorite beverage. Naturally, novelists write about espresso cafés. Such scenes have become ubiquitous. But have they jumped the shark? Are they now a cliché?
I discussed revising the first draft of my mystery novel in last month’s blog post. This month, I continue the theme by looking at setting; specifically, the coffee shop. As I document each scene of my novel, I also document where it’s located. Scenes in a row of people talking and drinking coffee (or eating) require revision. The question becomes, what else can characters do? And, where else will they go besides a coffee shop?
What Else Can Characters Do?
Offering different actions for characters is code to change the setting. The problem with coffee shops is that they are static. Characters are sitting, drinking coffee. Or eating a pastry. Not much action to that. It’s like using technology. Writing about a using a computer or phone (or lifting a cup of coffee) doesn’t provide action or tension. This is where knowledge-of-character comes in: Ask yourself what other things your characters like to do. What else could they do?
As I revise my novel, I monitor how often my protagonist is sitting, talking, and drinking. Also, where are those actions taking place? If there are too many in a row of people sitting and talking, I’ll revise those scenes. I write in first-person, so I devise ways to get my protagonist outside of a box. She must move through various locales for the plot to advance and be exciting.
I have two oddballs in my novel that work as comic relief. One of them, “Cousin Lou,” as she’s named, could show up at my protagonist’s door riding a bulldozer or leading a horse. Crazy behavior is consistent for her. From the start, I’ve painted Cousin Lou as someone likely to do most anything. So, when she shows up to take my character for a ride, it works. Lou is a foil that gets my protagonist away from sitting and talking. The two of them can go on an excursion while revealing crucial information to the reader.
Monitor your scenes. Be creative with where characters travel to get them beyond a coffee shop’s walls.
Where Else Can They Go?
Getting your actors moving doesn’t have to be complicated. Don’t overthink. They could go for a hike, walk a dog, play tennis, ride in a boat, or even ride an elevator. Those settings could work to emphasize what’s being discussed, too. (If a relationship is positive, they’re going up in the elevator. If it’s tanking, they’re going down.) Trust the reader to make the connection. Put layers of meaning into scenes. It makes writing more fun than it already is.*
If the lusciousness of coffee is compelling to you, then write about it. If how the romantic lead orders his coffee represents his personality, describe it. But take the guy somewhere else to drink the beverage. If two characters are in conflict, move them beyond a coffee shop to fight it out. Put them at a lakeshore holding coffee where high waves underscore their moods. Or put them in a calm, sunny spot to contrast their problem.
I just revised a scene where two characters are talking on a porch, having lunch. One character is revealing what happened previously. It’s backstory, a moment to remind the reader of hotspots in the story, to highlight clues. However, leaving the characters in a static spot talking about past events is boring. So, I moved them from the porch onto a boat. They can tour the town while viewing key locations. I can add lousy weather to nearly capsize them, if I like. Or a wild boater can get too close. I will raise the stakes while offering concise lines of backstory.
All is not lost with the coffee shop, however. The descriptions here of next-level coffee ordering and related behaviors are the ultimate in show, not tell. Just reading about how authors have used coffee as a prop to reveal how characters think is an inspiration.
If you have the concentration to write in a coffee shop, more power to you. And if your protagonist has a favorite corner spot, write about it. But consider how the location adds action to your novel. If necessary, move characters out into the world. Challenge yourself to give them something else to do while they drink a beloved beverage.
Happy eating and drinking, all. ~ Tracey Kathryn, MA
*Is writing fun? Some days, yes. Others, no. Some moments are more productive than others, certainly. To quote Oscar Wilde, “This morning I took out a comma and this afternoon I put it back in again.”
Note from Valerie: Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi's books are the best. Specifically for setting, I love The Rural Setting Thesaurus and The Urban Setting Thesaurus. (You may also like their website for authors which is linked above: WritersHelpingWriters.net