Every cup of coffee has a backstory. From seeds to grinder, there’s a physical tie, a beginning, and ultimately, an ending. Hands work to plant and the rest is a natural growth. There are people behind the scenes, each step of the way, transforming the bean to cup of coffee. Who are these workers? Men and women that I will never meet, but if I met them in a book, I would get to know their details and their story, and by the last page, I would know them.
The past. The present. The in-between. There’s a delicate tug-of-war that takes place for me as a writer. How to move the story forward without the backstory thrust upon the reader in unnecessary places. I have to deal with it, all writers do, particularly in romance where two characters can’t love completely unless they’ve dealt with complications from their past.
Characters and Cafes aren’t so different. I spend a little time with each, sometimes sitting in a coffee shop writing and sipping, or taking out my Kindle with my head slightly bowed and my hand around a to-go cup while I read. Either way, my goal is to focus on what makes each unique. Writer Emily is concerned with the here and now of a heroine’s journey. And coffee drinking is very much in the moment. Diving into her past feels counterproductive to keeping the story in the present. It goes against the rules of writing, to minimize the what was, the what came before I crack open the book and started with Chapter One, unless there’s a prologue inserted, which I have mixed feelings about.
I didn’t know anything about Caffé Nero. There’s one near my apartment in Earl’s Court, right on my way to the Tube. Initially, I brushed off the idea of going in there. Then I saw their logo scattered around the city and instead of resisting the idea of trying out a chain, I went inside–got to know it for myself. Each one is a little different, each one with a sophisticated and comfortable interior, and they all bear the same blue sign with black letters.
The reader requires a gauge, a compass, to understand fully why it’s difficult for the heroine to make the right choice, quit her job, stop drinking, report a crime, say no to the jerk. The writer decides how to show these specific events and there are triggers to accomplish this that can be sprinkled in throughout the story as opposed dominating the pages. Sights, smells, and scenery are all usable strategies. A heroine will remember how the hero’s breath felt warm on her lips. It reminds her of when they first met for an Espresso on a blind date. Now, maybe it all falls apart after that, but, good or bad, it stirs something within her. Smell is a powerful connection to memories.
The same is true for a latte. The same ingredients wherever I go, steamed milk, espresso, and topped in frothy goodness and if you’re lucky, a fancy leaf or heart. The smell of caffeine and milk blended together is mouth-watering to us coffee consumers. As a reader, I get it, as soon as caffeine is inserted as a description. Find what connects you to your memories and use it.
The decisions the heroine makes come from somewhere. Locations and ancestry matters (Caffé Nero’s past includes Italian roots). Everything the heroine needs to become compelling character can be pulled from family and relationship dynamics. Her upbringing, for example. Maybe she comes from a family who owns a big chain of coffee stores or maybe she watched her mother begging for cash to buy herself a cup.
There’s a consistency I come to expect as with characters, just like every Caffé Nero location. I love the stacked cups and saucers, and the baked goods (hello, croissants). A shared experience writers, readers, and coffee lovers seek and I’m reminded about the idea of origins for both coffee and a heroine.
Caffé Nero is over twenty years old with mega experience from planters to tasters to master roasters (that’s right, it’s someone’s job to taste coffee). The founders envisioned a place for people to come together with a high-quality product. They succeeded. It started with an idea, a goal, much like characters. They’re motivated to accomplish, to forget, to feel love and to let go, to forgive…start new and walk inside the café they’ve ignored for the past year. There’s a rawness to a heroine whose dialogue and thoughts slowly begins to change as the past becomes less important. This is where dialogue, encounters, and actions must be appropriate to the plot and move the story forward. Don’t waste page space that isn’t relevant to the heroine. Don’t create a trauma or event that has nothing to do with her current problem, those should be clear early on, and wane towards the end.
The placement of a character’s backstory, just like stepping into a coffee shop, can’t be forced. It must be right. If placed too early, I risk losing the reader’s interest (only because this has happened to me as a reader). If put in too late, the information may be irrelevant or feels like a filler. The where, when, the how. Café Nero told me what I needed to know in that moment. Cozy, clean, and with a touch of class with the bookshelves full of books, floor lamp, long table with benches for large groups to gather around or private tables with wing-backed chairs. I don’t need the entire history and all the details, the décor speaks for itself, as does the product.
Sometimes just a little bit of details is enough. And love the backstory, it is, after all, what gives the heroine a strong voice.