It’s early and the crowds haven’t arrived yet: all he can hear is the sound of the espresso machine. The scent, the rich, inviting smell of coffee is already all around him. He wraps his cold hands around the cup, stroking the click, glassy surface fondly. He takes a sip, enjoying the  way the milk wraps the coffee in a gentle blanket, waking up his taste buds slowly. The pattern on top of the foam distorts after his sip, the change in tension makes bubbles burst, like dreams touching reality.

The above is not a great piece of writing. It is what I wrote, in five minutes, when set a writing exercise to work on “sense of place”. The task was to think about a place and write a sentence for each of the senses inspired by that place. I thought of Brew Lab, the café in South College Street, because I like the look of their exposed, somewhat grungy walls.

So where are the walls?

I got distracted. As I wrote, I got distracted by coffee and the way the leaf pattern on a latte distorts when you blow on it, or drink from the mug. I’ve noticed that the darker foam – the coffee-rich foam – breaks more easily than the milky foam. I think it’s to do with composition and bubble size. The physics are a distraction. The effect of my distraction was that we don’t get a sense of place because we leave the room and spiral into a cup of coffee. Maybe we get a sense of a coffee cup, or the main character’s need for comfort.

This was one of the exercises we did at Louise Welsh’s masterclass two weeks ago. I learned something from writing and from listening to other people’s sentences:

  • If you don’t focus, you go off the path quickly.
  • Changing the width of your focus, from the entire café to a tiny detail, can be effective. (I’m not saying it is in the above, just that it could be.)
  • Place, and how we see it, is very individual.
  • Don’t worry about getting it ‘right’ when doing an exercise. You learn from mistakes too.

Place is important if you want your characters to be anchored in some kind of reality. I think about it a little differently now. My novel’s full of notes like this:  [MORE DESCRIPTION – LAYOUT ETC.]. Now I know that what I want to add in place of those comments is something that gives us a feeling for where we are, a sense of place.