Well, I’ll tell you.
It helps if you have it with you when you discover a setting and characters just begging to be preserved in ink.
My husband and I walked in to Harry’s Coffee Shop in La Jolla last week, with its 60s counter and stools, its leather-clad booths, its boisterous crowd of locals, and I started grinning. Harry’s had the atmosphere I’d been looking for to make a café in my manuscript come to life.
We got a table in the centre of the action. Primo spot for a writer, and her notebook.
Almost everything about Harry’s spoke to me. From the glass-fronted souvenir case filled with t-shirts and ball caps, to the framed pictures on the walls of baseball teams, newspaper clippings, high school sports teams, and a shot of Harry with Willie Mays, to the ladies’ room with its very skinny door that was angled at the bottom to match the slanted floor.
And the counter, elbow-to-elbow with diners who seemed so at home that they had to be regulars. Harry’s has been open 51 years and I’ll bet some of those regulars were there at the grand opening.
And the servers! (Okay, let’s call it like it is – waitresses, because there were no waiters at Harry’s when we visited.) Harry’s seasoned waitresses brought back memories of lunch at the Devonshire Hotel in downtown Vancouver during the late 70s. The Dev’s waitresses were not only seasoned – they were spicy. They would growl, “Eat your peas, or no coffee refills.” The Dev is long gone, but when I walked into Harry’s last week, I was immediately homesick for the Dev. And the thought ran through my head: “Good thing we’re ordering breakfast and not peas.”
Every writer has a notebook for occasions like this. If your notebook is like mine, it contains notes about plot glitches and how to fix them, ideas for titles, character sketches, bits of conversations, outlines for future manuscripts, to-do lists.
When I go for coffee, that notebook is with me.
Did I have it when we wandered into Harry’s looking for breakfast?
Noooo. My notebook was back in the hotel.
We returned to Harry’s the next day. I was armed, with notebook and pen. I was ready to put the atmosphere of the place onto paper.
You know what’s coming, don’t you? We were given a booth off to the side of the café, well away from the centre of the action. The staff was just as efficient, the food just as good, the place just as crowded. But…
My notebook stayed closed – whatever had been there the previous day was gone. I had missed the chance to snag those authentic details about my first glimpse of Harry’s that would help me put its personality on the page.
It occurs to me, too late, that I could have found paper somewhere that first morning. In my defence I can only say I hadn’t yet had coffee, so the synapses were misfiring, if they were firing at all.
Do as I say, not as I did.
When you find a Harry’s Coffee Shop, if you don’t have a notebook handy, use the café napkins. If you don’t have a pen, speak nicely to the hostess. If she’s anything like the hostess at Harry’s (who is a phenomenon), she’ll probably give you two.