Coffee Shop Novelist

CBS has posted an interesting interview with my friend Harlan Coben, culled from his appearance on The Early Show. Here’s an excerpt on how he writes:

"I usually go to, like, a local coffee shop or the library. I like a
little white noise when I write, but not as much white noise as my
kids. So I usually go someplace. It makes me concentrate harder. You
look like you’re being a jerk writing in a coffee shop, but that’s
where I work best."

Coben candidly admits he’s not as big on research as many other
fiction writers. "I’m more from the, ‘Hum a few bars and fake it’
genre," he says to Smith. "Tell you the truth, I do research, but I’m
really more concerned with making sure that I am holding you hostage
and gripping you. The research has to come secondary. Sometimes a
writer uses research as an excuse not to write, not to grip, to tell
you cute factoids. I don’t want to do that. I want it do it with the

I have no problem making things up — it’s ficton, after all, so I agree with Harlan on that score. But I couldn’t write in a coffee shop or a Starbucks, I’d feel horribly self-conscious (especially in L.A.).  You walk into any Starbucks in L.A., and people are sitting there writing scripts, almost as if they are striking a pose: "Hey, look at me, I’m a screenwriter. Are you impressed? Would you like to fuck me? Or, better yet, hire me?" It feel so fake to me.  I’m sure some of them really are screenwriters, and they just like a good cup of coffee while they write, but I still hate it.  So I try to avoid doing any writing at all in restaurants or hotel lobbies,  especially in L.A., Vancouver or Toronto.

That said,  I write a lot on airplanes, usually because I am on some kind of pressing deadline and can’t afford not to use the five or six hours. Writing on a plane isn’t so bad if I’m with my family or traveling Bill Rabkin, my TV writing/producing partner. But when i’m traveling alone, with a stranger sitting beside me, it’s extremely awkward. It’s not easy writing when my wife is looking over my shoulder, much less a complete stranger…especially if you’re describing a homicide or somebody having sex.  I don’t blame the stranger for intruding on my privacy– we’re crammed so close together it would be damn hard not to look at the screen.   So what I do is put on a pair of headphones, crank up the music, and pretend I am all alone.  In a sense, I have to forget I am on an airplane at all — I have to lose myself completely in my fictional world.  It usually works.

How do you feel about writing in public?


18 thoughts on “Coffee Shop Novelist”

  1. Of all the modes of transport, I prefer aeroplanes for writing. Doing it on a train just gives me motion sickness. For me to write anywhere else I have to know I’ll be there for at least a couple of hours, otherwise I’ll jut be getting my mojo working and it’ll be time to go.
    Mostly writing is for the study at home – that’s what I built it for, after all. Plus the cat acts as a great muse, when she’s not trying to make large holes in my flesh.

  2. You’re right about cats being great muses–OW! Ye Gods, man, put a warning before that link! Yrrgh! I was expecting a cute little picture of a kitty, now I’m going to have nightmares!
    I have a picture of my cat on the bulletin board above my desk. I’ll be living with some relatives and the chihuahua this summer–wonder if she’ll be as good a muse as a cat. Could be.
    Airplanes are good for writing, although the annoying thing is that when the tray table’s down to put the notebook on, there’s no space for your drink. Irksome. Trains…I couldn’t tell you. I’ve only ridden one once. Metro trains are impossible for the most part, unless I’m going all the way across town at non-rush-hour. Cars are good–usually when I’m driving somewhere with my mother for any length of time, she drives and I write and bounce ideas off her. It can be lots of fun.
    I also like coffee shops. Starbucks in a pinch, or Cosi here in the DC area which gives you lovely big mugs of coffee or chocolate or whatever strikes your fancy while you write. And their tables are big enough for a notebook.
    I just carry a notebook wherever I go, and pretty much write anytime I have to sit still for more than five minutes. Unless it’s close to exams (like right now) and then I’m guilted into studying instead. That’s a drag.

  3. Lee, if I lived in LA, I’d avoid bringing the laptop to Starbucks, too. Since I’m in the Midwest, it’s highly unlikely anyone thinks I’m a screenwriter when I’m banging away at the coffee shop. Every other person there has their laptop out. I’ve walked by and seen people doing their bank statements using the wireless. (The fools!) Most are college students.
    That said, the “Look at me. I’m a writer looking to get laid” stigma works in my favor. No one bothers me. Also, picking up a middle-aged overweight white guy is not this year’s black. So I have perceived posturing and excess pounds acting as a shield at Starbucks.

  4. Until my babies came, I was doing all my writing, music composition, and video editing at Starbucks, and a good chunk of my graphic design work, too. I couldn’t care less who thinks I’m posing.
    It’s detachment from home demands, a nice 20-minute walk each way, and there’s coffee. The baristas at the Austin Street Starbucks in Queens got a thank-you in my last book.
    Now I write on a TV tray in my kitchen while the babies are asleep, but I’d like to get back to Starbucks soon.

  5. First off, I would like to fuck you, Lee.
    That being said, I’m a little surprised at your reasoning for not writing in the coffee shops; who gives a damn what people think? So what if someone *thinks* that you’re a wanna-be screenwriter? Isn’t the joke on them that you actually are, while those around you aren’t?
    When I lived in LA I wrote almost exclusively at the Office:
    It’s a great place for writers if you can afford the cost. I think it’s like $5 an hour for WGA members.
    Now, gone from LA I am a coffee house writer. I have a great home office, but my kids are so young that they are there most of the time, and thus, I cannot be if I want to get anything done.

  6. You guys sure have guts supporting a family on writing. I sure couldn’t, at least not now. The books I’ve written and have in the pipeline now all were written either at home, at school in a college computer bank, the library, or visiting my parents places back east using the laptop. Forget planes, there’s not enough room to type.

  7. I started working in the neighborhood coffee shop in the winter of 2003, after a freak snowstorm of almost 30 inches. I couldn’t dig my car out for days and I got a little stir crazy.
    Once in the groove, I decided I liked three things about writing outside the house: 1) I had to shower first; 2) The buzz was like a newsroom; 3) There were no distractions — no Internet, no phone, no laundry. (My laptop isn’t set up for wireless.) More specific delights — Cody, the owner’s daughter; the ROMEOs, a group of older men who meet regularly (Retired Old Men Eating Out); the entire staff.
    But even after the local paper profiled me and showed me working at the coffee house, some people had no idea what I was doing, or why. I think the general belief is that I’m a delusional woman who sits in a coffee shop and pretends to write. And I’m fine with that.
    And no one wants to, um, date me. Not even the ROMEOs. (Lee, you’re so hardboiled. I just write that way. I don’t talk that way.)

  8. You crack me up, Laura. I feel the same way. I would write “fuck” in a novel (or in a story, as you know), but I’m always reluctant to write it on my blog. The Goldbergs, though, swear like sailors.
    I think I’m going to find your coffee shop one of these mornings and make you buy me breakfast.

  9. David, really! You ought to buy HER breakfast!
    In DC, coffee shops are a little different. People look like they’re working really hard writing reports about nuclear missile launch codes and major political strategizing in the hopes of meeting someone important.
    Such is life when your neighborhood Starbucks is three blocks from the Pentagon. And instead of screenwriters-trying-to-get-hired-and/or-laid, you get the guys in suits on their cellphones going, “Oh, yes, Senator, I’ll have that information for you by the end of the day. Yes, sir, I’m running it down now. Just stopped for a cup of coffee. I know it’s classified, but there are ways of finding this stuff out!” and so forth.
    I think maybe they’re trying to get laid too, it’s hard to say.

  10. Back when I had a “day job,” I carried a floppy disk containing work-in-progress in my briefcase and did some writing on company computers during my lunch hour.
    After becoming a full-time freelancer, I’ve done nearly all of my writing in my home office. Until a year ago, I was tied to bulky desktop computers. Even though I now have a laptop in addition to desktop computers, I still write in my office.
    It’s a tough habit to break.

  11. With my work the way that it is, I can’t work on planes (too high of a chance to have a customer / competitor sitting next to me on the flight). I do a lot of work out of my living room (when at home) and from the hotel (when on the road). I don’t much care for working on anything in a coffee shop, if only because it leads to people asking what I am doing and then the glazed over eyes etc…

  12. I’ve done it for so long out of necessity, I don’t think twice about it anymore. I wrote while working a full-time accounting job for years, so I would write during my lunch break either at my desk or in a spare office – or in a coffee shop, a food court, a restaurant, the park, etc. And since I commuted from the ‘burbs to the city via mass transit, I wrote on the bus!

  13. That being said, I’m a little surprised at your reasoning for not writing in the coffee shops; who gives a damn what people think? So what if someone *thinks* that you’re a wanna-be screenwriter? Isn’t the joke on them that you actually are, while those around you aren’t?

    Hey, Paul, I didn’t say my thinking was rational, did I? I know it’s stupid, but that’s just the way I am. Maybe it’s a reflection of my raging insecurity and my fear that yes, I really am a fraud who doesn’t deserve his WGA card…that I should be sitting in line outside a theatre that isn’t going to show STAR WARS working on my ALIAS/BUFFY cross-over fanfic.

  14. I can’t write in public. Mostly because when people come up and try to read over my shoulder, I have the urge to smack ’em. My family has learned … but I’d hate to deck a perfect stranger.

  15. The best I can do, with regards to such exhibitionism, is parking myself and a PowerBook on a boulder twice the size of an average SUV, about five hundred yards from an active Golden Eagle nest, about ten miles off the otherwise beaten path. I suppose it’s comparable to showing off in Starbuck’s, given the male Golden Eagle has been known to fling everything from a very live and scared mole to a bullsnake at me as he flies by, upwards and in to the nest, built on a massive overhang on a sandstone cliff face. It may be the ultimate editorial kibitzing, sans the rancid stench of overpriced coffee.

  16. I can dispense with Word rubberneckers easily enough. The people whoe bug me are the ones who see me in big black noise-canceling headphones, concentrating fiercely on music or audio editing, and go out of their way to get my attention so they can talk to me. They’ll actually wave if nothing else works.
    One scruffy guy at a Starbucks in Phoenix couldn’t resist talking to somebody who used music software he recognized, so he interrupted me and offered to email me a bunch of orchestral string library cracks. (Expensive and complexly programmed sound files used to simulate string orchestras, stolen and distributed illegally.)
    I told him I thought it would be hypocritical for somebody trying to make a living off intellectual property to use pirated software. He nodded sympathetically, as though I’d admitted a character weakness, and just rolled right over it to the next bit of smalltalk.


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