Where Do I Set A Story?

Everything’s happening at your local diner

Ernest Hemingway set his short story, White Hills Like Elephants, in a coffee shop. It’s a famous story, and the only scene is a cafe with a view of white hills.

Coffee shops are a favorite setting; someone once said that if you sit at a Paris sidewalk cafe long enough, eventually you’ll see everyone you’ve ever known pass by. I’ve never tried out the truth of that, because waiters tend to get angry if you sit at the same table for years and years, cobwebs collecting around your head and coffee cup.

For sheer volume of possibilities, you can’t beat a diner or coffee shop. If you don’t believe me, check out how many stories were set in coffee shops in the Twilight Zone. Aliens were sitting innocently at their booths and tables, while the townsfolk (or were they really ‘just’ townsfolk?) interacted with them all unknowing, as if they were their best friends. Sometimes, they were.

“I always knew there was somethin’ funny about Ed”, one patron would mutter, after Ed’s third eye and extra arms were exposed and Ed had disappeared in a cloud of smoke. “He never actually turned on that lawnmower of his. He’d just sit on the porch and watch it mow his lawn. Wondered how he did that.”

We don’t cotton to third eyes in this town, son.

Coffee shops are a small piece of Americana. Entire sitcoms and movies take place in them. They’re very public, so who could possibly suspect you of espionage or conspiracy if they see you quaffing quoffee with compatriots? Spies were always meeting at coffee shops. If you’re a spy and you meet up with a person in a trench coat at a shadowy corner in an alley at midnight, someone’s going to know something’s up. At Denny’s, not so much.

The possibilities for passing someone that tiny chip of microfilm full of photographs of the Soviets’ nuclear testing sites are endless. Slipped in a piece of pie, hidden under the check.

“You’d better put this blueprint away. Someone will know we’re spies. Ed here wore his trench coat!”

(Yes, I know my references are dated. That’s because spying was more fun back then.)

If it’s a busy coffee shop, there are a hundred conversations going on at once.

If you have bad news for someone, you can offer them tea right then, dry their eyes with an endless supply of paper napkins, and feel pretty confident they won’t cause a scene.

After they rush out in tears, you can order yourself another cup of coffee. You might think a bar would be a better place for bad news, but some knight in tee shirt armor, having knocked back a few already, may try to step in and rescue the brokenhearted one, whereas people hopped up on coffee just want to get back to work.

Break ups, two people falling in love, business lunches, weary shoppers busy with their own thoughts, solitary people working on a short story for which they don’t yet have a setting.

It’s all happening at a coffee shop.

Or the zoo. The zoo is a great setting for a story. Everything’s happening at the zoo. Or the park. Everything’s happening at the park. Or, a department store….everything’s happenin…