I think coffeehouses are meant to be in a row home on a historic street. There’s a rustic charm to a brick building with green trim and purple shutters. I go inside, staring at a narrow hallway with an old staircase and hardwood floors. The large, colorful mural of a woman holding up a cup of coffee spans the wall. The colors are bold, the details, vibrant. This is my first trip to Birdie’s Café. It is also my first encounter where coffee and art are blended together. But does it work?
Coffee is black. Art bursts with color. Caffeine can be offensive to the body. Art can be hard on the eyes. Each one has layers, flavors, textures open to interpretation. Both are also bold, subtle, strong and there are more than enough to go around. Sometimes, both are empty as a writer’s heart or an artist’s canvas. And other times, they are surprising and a beautiful rush.
Coffee houses, prints, framed photographs, romance novels, authors—they are no longer an exception, they are everywhere. The craft of expressing creativity is no longer a novelty. These are all industries with businesses owners marketing individuality. How does anyone standout with everyone competing for customers?
It’s all in the voice.
Yes, voice. Writing boils down to a practiced, refined discipline that gives the writer a chance to show a specific point of view. Just like a coffee house. Each one shines a different style. Coffee is coffee until mixed with other ingredients. Some of the flavors at Birdie’s that catch my eye include: Peppermint mocha, Mayan mocha, Con Panna (espresso shot with homemade whipped cream). The ability to take the ordinary and elevate to something unique is the challenge any artist faces.
Some argue that the focus on the voice is overrated. Others tout the importance of unleashing individuality. The answer is different for every writer. Without voice—without creating the art of a story there’s nothing left but a group of writers all tucked into limited plots, dialogue, and wrapped up with a similar cover. Authenticity matters. At least, that’s my opinion.
Where can a writer to begin to find her voice? The simple of act of choosing which view a reader is given. A writer can choose between writing in first person or third.
First person lets the reader see the world through my eyes alone. There’s extreme potential for tunnel vision. I walk inside. There’s an old, but grand staircase to my right. Immediately I wonder where it leads. Laughter and chatter erupt from another room and I turn to see the spacious sitting area with a fireplace, windows, and sketches of people hanging on the wall.
I go to the coffee counter. I look at the menu and my stomach roars at the sight of a breakfast sandwich with egg, bacon, cheese, on a bagel. The list of drinks catches my attention. There’s coffee and espresso, mochas, an entire list titled Snowbirds of cold smoothie coffee drinks. I know I’ll come back to try The Audrey, which, if you’re wondering, is made of four shots espresso, whipped cream, caramel, and mocha drizzle.
I find a seat, sip my vanilla latte, and wait for the sandwich. The sketches of faces on the walls catch my attention. Like art, writing starts out as a sketch, an idea. A voice not backed by the confidence of a seasoned writer. The lines are there. The beginnings of a chapter. Like a pencil drawing, those first lines are faint. Reworking dialogue, paragraphs, sweeping away unnecessary words. Adding shade and layers and texture to a story marks the true beginning of a novel that the artist gradually deepens with experience. I think of how many of my favorite authors started that first manuscript with nothing more than a sketch.
A customer looks over the menu, tempted to try the Red Eye (1 shot espresso in brewed coffee). She smiles at the fact that there’s a Black Eye for the more confident (2 shots espresso in brewed coffee). The day is not halfway done and she needs a jolt, but also something sweeter, and her gaze travels over the list of mochas. Ah. The Caramel Mocha. That’s the one.
She places her order, deciding to skip breakfast, and walks over to the spacious room with tables with checker board designs. This makes her think of that novel she started decades ago, when she had all the time in the world, and no idea how to fill it. Now, there’s no time, she’s between the past and the future, sitting at a table waiting for her order.
Both examples relay a slightly different interpretation to the scene. There’s an unhurried feeling of the coffee shop. There’s a variety of menu selections. We don’t know what the character will do next, but we know she’s content to sit, sip her coffee. There’s no pressure here for her to do anything else. She sees they have a poetry reading next month. When was the last time she let herself just listen to words?
Speaking of words…writing heroes and heroines in a romance novel can be tricky. These characters often fall into the pattern of these descriptors and the voice can sometimes feel forced and ‘done.’
Hero: alpha male, cold, aloof, untouchable, wealthy, perfect in style, taste, and worldly experience.
Heroine: strong-willed, stubborn, beautiful (yet oblivious to her looks), classy, successful, intelligent.
It takes a whole lot of voice to push a character beyond a category. Many stories are not inclusive, the stories of their characters are left out. The job of the writer is to stretch the limits of characters through action and dialogue. Characters don’t have to fit into a box. They are best written in the way the writer imagines them. This means that finding the heart of a character–of a story, might mean taking an innovative risk. The voice a writer begins with isn’t necessarily the one she will end up using.
It’s all about the voice. The art. The coffee brewed with an artistic touch, can help.
Like Birdie’s, you might find you need some creative inspiration. Get your laptop. Spend some time in the laid-back, funky atmosphere. There’s games, poetry readings, music, art shows, great food, and much more. They’ve taken the tired business of a cafe and breathed life into it with color and pride. And for the writer’s…yes, there’s space to spread out with friends or sit solo in front of a window. Order a cup of coffee and refine your art.
Birdie’s Cafe * 233 E Main St, Westminster, MD 21157
Coffee in my hand and an overcast sky. The perfect combination for my visit to The Frederick Coffee Company & Café in Downtown Frederick.
Flavors of the Day:
Coffee – Oatmeal Cookie Crumble.
Latte – Samoa (Chocolate, Coconut, & Caramel).
The weather has been all over this place this year, just like the first draft of a novel. Half-thought out story lines. Characters rebelling against my plans for them. Loosely fitting chapters with no golden arrow stringing them together. But as I sit at the high counter and sip my coffee, I realize that a coffee shop and a novel aren’t much different. There’s a lot of behind the scenes work that goes into producing an atmosphere. A style. A brand. Both begin as something and become more.
What can a writer learn from a coffee shop? More than one realizes. Consistency and connection are key in both.
Consistency is in the atmosphere of the building on 100 N East St., Frederick Street. The owner of the Frederick Coffee Company & Café knows a thing about customer service, given the more than twenty-five years in the business. Regulars and newcomers alike know what to expect from a place offering indoor and outdoor seating. They gravitate towards this place. With good reason.
A daily selection of four coffees is available in bold, mild, specialty, and decaf, not to mention the lattes and mochas. Breakfast sandwiches, bagels and pastries, Ken’s French Toast are staples. There’s also a delicious lunch with fresh-made soups and sandwiches. A bakery case full of desserts for mornings or late nights.
The problem out of how to stand out in an any industry is the ultimate question. Competition for coffee shops are on every corner of these streets with their brick buildings. So? How does The Frederick Coffee Company & Café set themselves apart? For one, the product of great cup of coffee is elevated to an experience. Offered weekly and/or monthly are several options for being involved with the community. Entertainment like the Sunday Songwriters. Open Mic Nights. Poetry Readings. Live music. A Chess Club. A Gamer’s Club. Local artwork for sale. An activity board full of flyers about activities in the area.
A cup of coffee is now a chance to join something bigger. To have a connection. That’s the heart of this place.
Every time I stop by for some coffee, I spot a group of men with a Reserved Sign at their table. They have my attention (settle down ladies, I know you’re thinking). Who are they and why should I care? The writer in me asks another question. What’s their story?
They are the Frederick Coffee Club. For the last twelve years, five mornings a week, they meet here, although the club itself is more than forty-years old. They have incredible backgrounds (including a former Director for Camp David and a pioneer in Maryland School for the Deaf). They show up, they talk, and there’s a plaque on the wall where their names get added when they pass away. They could meet anywhere, but they choose here. Each day they are welcome. Their coffee goes beyond a hot drink. A morning in those chairs is meaningful. Their group identifies with the city, with the changes, but they remain loyal. They, have a table.
A writer also needs a table. A dependable place to hash out a story line. Many elements are beyond a writer’s control. These are similar to those a coffee shop experiences. Disruption in trends, the economy, over saturation of a fierce market. Staying true to a brand goes a long way. Riding out shifts of the industry. There’s a reason a reader selects the same author again and again: quality, constancy, and reacting to the writing. The author knows how to draw you back in, to make you sit a little longer, to finish the story. Because you want to connect.
Readers long for a story they know themselves. Chapters full of real emotion, dialogue, struggles, mistakes. These characteristics are central to the story. A writer can’t write for everybody. A coffee shop can’t cater to one crowd. I set the tone and I go forward. Eventually, readers move towards books by the same authors. Then they will recommend them. Word-of-mouth is a powerful force. That’s the art of creating something bigger than a book. Something set apart from a cup of coffee.
The challenge is to figure out what is worth your time. Everyone won’t love every author. Everyone won’t enjoy every coffee shop. The key is to understand when something is right, it’s right. Here’s to the Frederick Coffee Company & Café—you get it right.
There’s a bakery in Monrovia that has my attention. The Buzz. Have you heard of this place? Correction: How have you not heard of this place?
The words at First Sight come to mind. Three simple words implying an instant reaction. But there’s more to them. There’s more to this bakery than what you see. There’s all the ingredients for making a good story.
Our senses include sight, sound, taste, touch, and smell. They evoke emotion. They help us make decisions about whether we like something or not. They are also powerful tools writers use. Senses can take a reader from scanning the text to experiencing a story. They make a reader cry, laugh, cringe, and get angry.
How does a writer do this?
Begin with sight—the most straightforward of the senses to describe a scene. A character draws from objects around her. What does she see upon entering The Buzz? Witty signs posted on the walls. I don’t have a problem with caffeine, I have a problem without it. Mugs hang from racks. Cookbooks stacked on the counter. Chairs seated with customers. Trinkets of mini fudge brownies next to the register. A chalkboard sign showcasing specialty custom cakes like Coconut Pineapple with Pina Colada or Carrot Spice with Cream Cheese. A display case full of baked goods drizzled with icing and nuts. A line of guilty pleasure pastries and muffins sit on the counter next to the triple berry scones. Paper menus are printed bi-weekly as the food options change. Tables are full except for the one in the corner.
You see the environment. You form a picture of what this place looks like. The Buzz is all about pleasing the eye with catchy decor and food to match.
But what does our character hear? What does she smell? Background noise, music, uneasy silence? A visual description alone won’t give the reader the full image. Which is why sound and smell are critical to building a scene. What our character smells will impact her level of hunger and her mood. She breathes in hints of sugar and spices. The smell triggers another time she was here with that guy who ended up breaking her heart. Her stomach rumbles. A crack forms in her heart. The noise helps her to refocus. People engrossed in conversations. A group of three men laugh like they’ve known each other forever. Pots and pans clang in the kitchen. The employee behind the counter finalizes a sale and the cash register drawer opens and closes with a thud.
We haven’t tasted the food but our senses are expanding. What does she order?
Build on the story with taste. She orders two scones. Strawberry-banana and walnut. She overhears the owner telling someone to try the Hot Chocolate Bundt Cake and she thinks, Why not? She orders a slice for herself.
One might be tempted to write her reaction like this:
- The Bundt cake is a sweet and delicious mix of chocolate and marshmallow topping. The flavors are wonderful. The cake is warm and melts in her mouth.
Oh no. That’s not going to leave the reader panting for a piece of cake. So let’s step this up. Elevate these sentences to something more. A reader should close the book and run to her kitchen to find something equally as satisfying. Second take:
- The enormous slice of Hot Chocolate Bundt cake is big enough for two, maybe even three. Rich and gooey doesn’t begin to do this mass of chocolate indulgence justice. Warm, toasted marshmallow topping mixed with chocolate coats the top. She sticks her fork into the moist cake and brings it to her lips. She’s salivating before the sugary, sticky, decadent, moist cake greets her mouth like a kiss. Oh my God. Is all she can say. She immediately inhales the next bite.
A scene transforms by adding touch. The character isn’t just reading the menu. Her palm touches the smooth paper. She runs her hand over the stack of cookbooks on the counter. Their spines are smooth and hard. She goes to her table. The manager brings her a cup of coffee with cream on the side. The handle of the small pitcher is smooth against her fingers. Methodically, she stirs her coffee. The caffeine flavor excites her taste buds. The place is warm. Her body responds to the physical objects around her.
A romance-length novel is 80,000 words (in case you’re wondering). There are many pages to fill.Write using all the senses. Don’t be tempted to create sentences based on only what you see. Step inside the mind of a character. Try The Buzz. Order from their all-day breakfast and lunch menu. Sit awhile. You’ll find all the ingredients of a place worthy of our character’s time—and yours.
11801 Fingerboard Road
Monrovia, MD 21770
Gravel & Grind – 124 S Carroll St, Frederick, MD 21701
A bike shop + espresso bar. I don’t think a better combination exists. Yet, here I am, at the Gravel & Grind on Carroll Street, in the heart of downtown Frederick, trying to figure out how I didn’t know about this place before. Does the rest of Maryland know? If not, you should.
My thoughts are that we have coffee and a bike. How do they go together? A bike is a mode of transportation. The entire point of riding is to start at one place and end up at another. Coffee is the antithesis of all this movement. There’s a lot of sitting down, taking slow sips, and staying. Put the two together and you get friction.
The same can be true for writing a romance novel. The two main characters must work against each other in the beginning. They don’t immediately go together as a couple. One of them is at a stationary point in life (our coffee drinker). The other is moving in a different direction (our bike rider). A story is divided into three sections. The before, the in-between, and the after. Characters each carry with them their own bag from the past. A heavy bag full of inner-struggles, faults, even lost dreams. As individuals, they can only avoid their problems for so long.
Until the location forces them to meet.
A setting is pivotal to the story. A coffee shop like Gravel & Grind, for example, is where one might start the story. A business man stands outside, debating whether to go inside. He’s never been here before. This isn’t his scene. His luxury car has broken down and he decides to go inside and grab a cup of coffee while waiting for the tow truck to arrive. He’s in a bad mood.
He walks up the stairs to the entrance, passing by the stacked tables and chairs—filled no doubt during better weather. He steps inside the all-brick building. The reader knows he will find something unexpected, as did I upon entering the shop.
Immediately a row of bikes lined against the wall catches his attention. The last time he rode a bike was…? It sparks something in him. A reminder of long Saturdays meant for getting on a bike and going somewhere. Touring the city. Mountain biking in the country. A lifetime ago. Freedom. He narrows his eyes and sees there’s more than bike riding available. There’s equipment he can rent for weekend camping. Bikes and camping. He loosens his tie. He wants to ditch his suit jacket and rent a bike. But he can’t.
He looks around. Bike gear and bike racks hang on the wall. Shelves are full of bike-related accessories, mugs, bags of coffee beans, water bottles. Candles are for sale. Camping gear for rent includes a two-person Nemo Tent, mummy bag, headlamp, cooking kits…It’s been forever since I’ve camped. The writer hints that the story might unfold if he would try something he used to do as a kid, something that brought him joy.
Large white lights are strung from the ceiling. Around the corner he finds a large coffee bar with a chalkboard menu. The laid-back atmosphere isn’t his type of place, but he looks at the menu, checking out the latte, espresso, even breve (espresso with steamed half & half). There’s food too, biscotti, bread from local artisan bakeries with a side of almond butter and jam. He orders a mocha with a shot of cayenne pepper, still thinking about how it would feel to rent one of these bikes and tour the city or the countryside, anywhere else—and get away.
She is sitting at the counter off to the side with her laptop open. Our heroine frequents the place. Her schedule has more time for sipping coffee. She’s trying to figure out how to do life. Maybe, she lives around the corner on Church Street. This is her place. She bikes in the good weather and camps with friends. She sees him and he sees her. That’s where a story begins, the moment two characters acknowledge each other.
They are now in the same space.
“Do you bike?” she says, knowing she’s never seen him here before.
Their adventure might be just getting started, but for those of us looking for something in the real world, I’d recommend this place to anyone. Bikes, rental equipment, coffee, all you need is right there waiting for you.
The French Twist Café
The French Twist Café set in historic Sykesville reminds me of a setting in a story. The word twist actually means to turn away from something stationary. A plot twist. A twist of fate. A coffee with a twist. It’s not just a coffee shop. It’s more. The words on the side of the building are Coffee, Crêpes and Conversation. Like a good flow of paragraphs, I want to turn the page and step inside to see what this place has to offer.
Set across the street is a train car and a post office. There’s something romantic about walking up to an early twentieth-century home that’s been converted to a coffee shop. I’m pleasantly intrigued by what I see; I know this is going to be good. I leave the glittering fall day outside and step inside.
The instant I walk through the door my stomach grumbles. Fresh batter for crepes, caffeine, a hint of something else—chocolate maybe—or just a special blend of all their ingredients captures my senses. The menu that I pick up has a selection from Suorees (sweet crêpes) to Galettes (savory crêpes) and Une Petite Douceurs like croissants with chocolate or almond and cookies and baked goods, not to mention specialty coffees. I choose the L’Italienne and the Crêpe à la banane et au Nutella, fancy right? Makes me want to learn French. Or, be in Paris sitting outside with a coffee in my hand.
I like this place. Inside it has a bit of soul. There’s no reason to hurry. I get my plates of crêpes and my latte and walk upstairs to see what it has to offer. I’m greeted with a long table surrounded by photos of Paris on the wall and a subway map of the city. Around the corner I find a sitting area with couches with shelves full of board games and, yes, books! Adding to the atmosphere are the white lights strung up high on the wall that casts a glow over the room. A table with a window overlooking the brick buildings of downtown is where I sit. A perfect spot to eat and just breathe.
The food is fantastic. I take my time, glancing at the latte in my hand which is almost too pretty to drink with the fancy leaf in the foam. How do they do that? The details are the special spin on this place. Everything about the location and the menu are unexpected and worthy of a visit next time you find yourself downtown. I want to come back again and share it, like a memorable book.
I am not new to coffee shop hunting. Ever since my love for this strongly and offensive flavor began, even the smallest café still catches my eye. By accident I found The Perfect Blend Café tucked into a corner building—a short walk from where East Patrick Street becomes West Patrick in downtown Frederick, a literal crossroads of flavor, unique shops, and a thriving arts scene.
There’s something timeless and original about a good coffee shop, particularly once summer hands-off the season to fall. Entering a new coffee shop is like dating. I’m a little nervous (Will I like the place?). I’m not sure what to expect (Will the staff notice I’m new?) Am I wasting my money? (Will I be disappointed?). I decide to take a chance. Why not?
I’m surprised to find the space is funky. I get a good feeling the moment I enter through the door. The bakery display case is full of treats with crumb toppings or icing or fresh fruit with smells to match. Stacks of paper cups are awaiting someone’s order. Baskets of creamers and pitchers of half-and-half line the counter. There’s not much room, which is not a deal-breaker. Some cafés are meant to have couches, and others, only tables, like this one, I’m meant to get my coffee and not linger. I’m supposed to get on with my day. Go walk through nearby Baker Park or do some window shopping. There’s an efficient pace of the staff which I appreciate.
And the staff are friendly. I’m greeted with Good Morning and a grin. There’s a start. Sincerity counts for something at these places. It’s never out of style to be kind. Three tables make up the inside sitting options and there’s more outside. I order my coffee and a blueberry muffin, and take my cup over to the stand full of three flavor-of-the day selections. I go with hazelnut. You can’t go wrong with that flavor, especially as I pour a decent amount of half-and-half in the cup and catch a view of the intersection, already scattered with leaves.
One sign of a good coffee shop is the black board menu, which they have. If I gave out points to coffee shops for accessories, they’d get some for sure. These are classic, changeable, and written by a real human. I like to look up and see that someone took the effort to write the word Espresso or Mocha because that means they can change it to make room for seasonal goodies. Coffee is no different from a summer salad at a restaurant with seasonal veggies or pecan pie special in the heart of winter. There’s a time for coffee flavors of the fall like cinnamon, pumpkin spice, almond, and bold blends. There’s a time for fresh made cinnamon rolls, blueberry muffins, and soups too (which they have daily). The beverage selection is broad and full of specialty drinks like lattes, espressos, Chai, teas, frozen/iced drinks and smoothies.
I decide I’m not in the mood for sitting at one of the wrought-iron tables outdoors, their seats are full, which I imagine they stay that way until well past the respectable coffee hour (ten-thirty, in my opinion). Charged by the steaming cup of caffeine, I’m eager to get outside and walk around. The visit is quick enough that it leaves me wanting more and it’s safe to say, I’ve got a crush on this place.