On the whole, I have found that cafés are surprisingly welcoming to writers. I had not expected us to be greatly appreciated: we take up space for an hour or several, and often only buy one or two drinks. Indeed, there have been establishments where I have felt hassled, where staff have come over every ten minutes to ask if they can get me anything else, or have sighed and frowned each time that they pass my table. But there are far more places where I am left alone to get on with my work, whether I end up ordering more or not.
Of course, consideration goes both ways. If I am not expecting to eat at a café, I make sure not to be there around lunch-time, and I pack up and leave before they run out of empty tables if they start to get busy. And if I do intend to eat out, I stay to have lunch or dinner at the place I’ve been writing in; I know someone who writes all morning in a café which suits her perfectly, but then goes on to another place to eat lunch with her husband. To me, this seems rather disloyal – but maybe that’s just me!
If you intend to write in a café regularly, it’s probably a good idea to have thought about what sort of environment you like. I don’t mind background music while I’m writing, for example, but loud, intrusive pop music would make it harder for me to concentrate on my work. I’m also happy to write in a busy, bustly sort of place, but I don’t like loud, heated discussions. The shape, colour, and material of the tables don’t matter to me, but I usually work on a small laptop, and the writing position has to be comfortable. I also hate hot, steamy atmospheres. You can see that I’m rather picky; if I’m going somewhere to work, and I’m paying for drinks and perhaps food in order to do so, I have to be able to get at least as much done as if I had stayed at home!
For me, it is always the case that the advantages of working in a café at that particular time have to be worth paying for. There have been times in my life when leaving home for a couple of hours has been the only way to avoid being interrupted or loaded up with other people’s priorities, for example. Another reason that has occasionally been important for me has been when I am feeling jaded or boxed in, and the easiest way to renew myself or my writing has been to move to a different location. Sometimes a change of scenery triggers a “writing mindset”: much of the first draft of Brightly Shines the Darkness was written at a tranquil local ex-priory, for example, where I would go after dropping the children off at school a couple of times a week. Mostly I would take a packed lunch, and work in the gardens until I needed to leave to collect the children again. If I needed the peace to write that I would find there and it was raining or very cold, I would base myself in the café, spinning out a coffee for the whole morning, and then coming home before their lunch-hour rush. I really appreciate being able, now that pennies are not so tight, to stay and eat out sometimes!
Nowadays, if I write in a café on my own, it’s usually because I’ve been to an appointment or meeting, and I have time before my next commitment, so it’s often a case of choosing the likeliest prospect in an unknown town. Nearer to home, I am a member of a writing group that meets once a week in a café (and sometimes at other times, too). When there are several people to please, all with different tastes in drinks, ambience, and so on, it can be harder to find a suitable venue. We used to take it in turns to nominate the location of the following week’s session, and over time we got to know which cafés suited which members of the group. Now, we have a regular meeting in the same café in Forest Row each week, because it seems to suit all of us well.
When you are not writing at home, where do you choose to work?