People are weird. Especially the ones who go to coffee shops to people watch and take notes…

Okay, I admit it, sometimes I go to coffee shops to write. I write in coffee shops a lot. I write in coffee shops probably more than I should considering I only work part time and can’t afford, well, anything. So, I thought I may as well write a post about writing in coffee shops. Even though I have so many notes about writing in coffee shops that I’m going to write three blog posts (but maybe only two – let’s face it, I get bored easily) all on the same subject, I still decided after about 30 seconds minutes of trying to write this post, to go out for a coffee and write down more stuff. And while I was at it, I figured that I may as well have a coffee as well. And maybe also, a sandwich.


Nothing lures me into an afternoon of writing more than being in a place which serves coffee and sandwiches all day long and I don’t have to go to the effort of actually making them myself. But apart from the sandwiches and coffee which cost a small fortune (but are totally worth it), I do actually find it useful to get out of the house to write. It’s especially helpful get out and about when I’m really struggling to think of things to write about and nothing jump-starts a flat creative battery (wtf?) like people watching. And it’s so easy to people-watch in a coffee shop and take endless notes about what people are saying and wearing and doing and none of them are any the wiser… I don’t think. If you’ve never coffee-shop-people-watched before, then I have created a simple guide on how to start just for you:


I coffee-shop-people-watch so much now, that even when I go out for coffee with friends, I struggle to focus on whatever they’re talking about in favour of listening in to someone else’s conversation or staring out of the window at people in their weird outfits wandering by.

Some people might class this as being nosey or sad or being a really crap friend, but as far as I’m concerned this is all totally valid, writery research. To prove it, I’ve ransacked my notebook for my coffee-shop-people-watching best-bits:

“An elderly woman asks if I mind if she sits at the table next to me and I say ‘no, not at all’ even though I actually do mind if she sits there, but I pretend it doesn’t bother me. It doesn’t bother me that every time she turns a page of her Daily Express, a corner brushes against my elbow, or that she coughs ever fifteen seconds, or that she’s sitting unusually close to me, or that there’s at least six other tables in here and she decided to sit next to me, or that she kind of smells like perfume bought from an Avon catalogue about twenty years ago.”

“A man in a v-neck jumper and eighties glasses with leopard print frames mucks about with his iPhone and talks to a younger guy across the table about meetings and email and youtube. Later an even younger guy, a boy, emerges from nowhere, picks up a bag from under their table and sits behind them. Then he starts playing with an iPad and I can’t work out if he’s with the other two guys. Is he their brother? A son? Then I wonder if the first two guys are having a meeting or maybe an interview? Do they all work for Apple?! I can’t work it out. Later, the two men stand and shake hands. The guy in the v-neck and eighties glasses leaves with the boy and his iPad. The other guy goes to the bathroom.”

“A man wearing a purple witch’s hat walks by on the other side of the road, dragging a large, very broken, electric fan .”

“Someone is sitting on the grass-verge on the slip road opposite. At first glance, I think that it’s two people – two people hugging. Or maybe having sex. Then whoever it is moves, and it’s actually just one guy, and a guitar case. He’s a hitchhiker. I don’t know how long he’s been sitting there – but I’ve been here for a a half-hour and no-one has picked him up yet. If I was him, I would have got bored by now and left. Oh, wait. Now he’s standing. Did he hear what I was thinking? No. That’s impossible. And also, paranoid.”

This is all excellent fodder for my therapist novels and short stories and what not. Or at least it should be. Frankly, I forget about whatever I’ve written as soon as I close my notebook. But if I was a proper writer (like them authors what write books) I would probably use these life-type observations for my writing all the time.

So, proper writers, tell me: Do you people-watch and then use your encounters for stories? Give me some of your people-watching best bits. You know, just so I don’t look like a complete weirdo.

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Comments: 14

  1. Steven Chapman May 19, 2011 at 8:38 pm Reply

    I do like a bit of people watching…although doing it in coffee shops is a bit too expensive for me nowadays. I prefer to climb trees in full camouflage gear and peek into people's homes. You get a wider range of the human tableau that way…plus you get to see a boob every now and again.

    I do have a lot of notes from back when I could afford a non-instant coffee but I’ll be damned if I know where they are. They’re floating around somewhere – mostly in my head. I also think the bus is a great place to people perv or, if they start to become too boring, just stick your nose to the glass and watch the world go by.

    I remember seeing a hillside full of shoes once, on the bus journey home. A grass verge, leading up to a street full of houses, just littered with twenty or thirty pairs of shoes. At least I assume they were in pairs. I didn’t really check that hard – I was too busy concentrating on the man in the suit picking through them one at a time…maybe he was looking for the right partner for his left piece of footwear. Who knows? What I do know is you’d be doing well to see that happen in Starbucks!

  2. Suniverse May 19, 2011 at 9:13 pm Reply

    I can't sit in a coffee shop and write/people watch for that long because I have to pee ALL THE FUCKING TIME and few public toilets are things I want to deal with multiple times. Plus? Who'd watch my stuff? See – we need to live next door to each other. It would solve all our problems.

    However, I do enjoy watching people when I'm in other situations, like while shopping or in the library or at the gym. Although I'm not a big fan of people watching in the locker room, because you get funny looks and then asked to leave.

  3. Simone May 19, 2011 at 9:37 pm Reply

    the truth is stranger than fiction. because you cannot make this shit up. a man in a witch hat. priceless. i love love love writing in coffee shops. i go into another world and hog up a seat for hours on end.

  4. Rik May 19, 2011 at 9:42 pm Reply

    On the train today, two (I'm guessing, because I'm too old to be able to tell) 17 year-old boys discussing their weekend plans:

    Boy 1: So, I reckon we need about five cans each before we go out.
    Boy 2: Five cans? We're arriving at yours at 7.30, and going out at eight. D'you reckon that'll be enough time to get through them all?
    Boy 1: Yeah, no problem. If anything, we'll have time to spare.

    I'm pretty sure they were talking about beer. Or cider. But whatever it was, that's a lot of liquid to take onboard in 30 minutes.

  5. alonewithcats May 20, 2011 at 1:16 am Reply

    I do my best people-watching in a one-on-one setting. Like when I go out with tools, secretly observe and then write blog posts about them. No, wait. That's not people-watching. That's … dating? I don't know.

  6. alexis May 20, 2011 at 3:06 pm Reply

    Pffffft! This was a great post! Loved the notes!

    Is that your handwriting in the corner of the picture?

  7. laurenne May 20, 2011 at 4:33 pm Reply

    I have been looking for it everywhere.
    If you see the man in the purple witch's hat, you let me know.

    I LOVE eavesdropping in cafes. If we ever meet for real, I would be happy to go with you to cafes and not say a word to each other. Bonding!
    I never use these characters in my stories though. I base all my characters on parts of my self. Narcissist alert!

  8. Jojiebean May 21, 2011 at 10:15 am Reply

    I'm not overly sure where these magical trees are where you get to see a boob or two, Leisure Suit Larry, but it certainly nowhere I've been. But then folk don't tend to expose themselves too much in Costa Coffee or wherever.

    When I used to get the bus to work, I use to people watch and take notes. Predominantly because so many weirdos got on my bus, and due to the rush hour traffic, we pretty much inched along into town at a snails pace, thus giving me plenty of time to get down some notes.

    But then I got sick of the hour-long bus journeys and got the train instead, which only took ten minutes and I had to stand.

    However, had I encountered a hillside full of shoes while on the bus, I think I would definitely found the bus journey more interesting.

  9. Jojiebean May 21, 2011 at 10:19 am Reply

    Yeah – thanks Sue. Just RUIN my next post about writing in coffee shops (all about how coffee makes me need to pee, and then I can't focus on writing because I need the loo, and I'm too scared to leave all my stuff at the table in case someone steals it, but I can't just pack it all up and go to the loo and come back because that would be weird) why don't you?

    But seriously, kind of relieved that you have the same thing. Some folk just leave their stuff on their table, without a care in the world. And in fairness, no one ever takes it or anything, but knowing my luck, someone would totally nab all my stuff while I'm in the loo and then I'd tell the police who would be all "WHY WOULD YOU JUST LEAVE A LAPTOP UNATTENDED IN A PUBLIC PLACE?!" and I'd be all "I don't know sir, I'm just really trusting of patrons in coffee shops," and they totally wouldn't sympathise.

    So – the way I get round it, is move to a different coffee shop after going to the loo. Problem solved. Sort of.

  10. Jojiebean May 21, 2011 at 10:20 am Reply

    It's a cliche – but it's completely true. I guy in a witch's hat dragging a fan. No amount of imagination could make that shit up. Even if you've taken psychotropic substances.

  11. Jojiebean May 21, 2011 at 10:24 am Reply

    And at no point did they plan a toilet break? Well, more fool them. Because they're going to need to pee a LOT.

    I actually love over-hearing the young folk plan disasterous nights out like that. It makes me think back to all those nights at my friends' houses pretending to like beer and therefore pretending to be drunk.

  12. Jojiebean May 21, 2011 at 10:26 am Reply

    All the same, it works out pretty well. You have seriously good stuff to use for writing blog posts… And at least you go on dates with *people*, and not, you know, with a notebook.

  13. Jojiebean May 21, 2011 at 10:27 am Reply

    It most certainly is. That weird Zorro-esque scrawl is, in fact, my handwriting.

  14. Jojiebean May 21, 2011 at 10:29 am Reply

    I wonder if he dragged it from LA to Yorkshire? That's a pretty long way to carry a broken fan. I should imagine it's long gone now. You should probably think about investing in a new one.

    Yeah, I think I have the same narcissistic approach to my writing. Why write about other, more boring, quite strange people, when you can write about yourself?

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