Making a familiar place strange

Location: Coffee shop

Look at what people are ordering, do they drink what you’d expect, is there a pattern in what people have? Consider if coffee is worth it or could you have made instant coffee at your flat? Try to describe the smell of the coffee beans, take your time, spend too long finding the right word. Disregard that word, it doesn’t feel right.

Count the seconds of steam that is created with each cup of coffee, or find an odd layer of beauty in the time taken for it to disperse, absorbed into its surroundings. Concentrate on the sound it makes until it becomes white noise.

Watch the staff behind the counters, decipher any habits they may have. Do they reach for a certain appliance in a certain way, do they lean on a certain counter when they’re tired? Carry on watching then. People watch, and if you don’t know how to then this is a great time to learn. Coffee shops are good for that. Start with the person ahead of you. Notice the timing of their pen hitting the table. Tap… tap…tap… then occasionally there’s a pause then tap… tap tap… pause once more. Let yourself imagine what they’re working on. Are they a student? A professor? A member of the public? If they are a student what do you think they’re be studying? Take note of the lighting. The light is to the side of them, it’s not too bright but it casts a shadow. Sometimes a piece of dust floats by, focus on that. The smallest of things can be the most intriguing. 

Let’s look at this bit of dust more closely, we’ll start with the path it takes as it floats through the air. If it’s pushed by the breeze as the shop door is opened, then we won’t have too long to observe it. It’ll be propelled away from us rather quickly. However, if the door stays closed and everyone is relatively still then we may have a minute or two. Where do you think it originated from? Next see if there’s anything orbiting it, it’s doubtful but let yourself picture it. It’s fascinating but strange that the planet you stand on drifts like this spec of dust, in comparison to space we might as well be as small and insignificant as a fibre of dust.


Making a familiar place strange was a writing exercise I did in my pro’s class at university. The idea of it is to analyse and write about a familiar place in such detail that it becomes almost foreign to you. It’s like saying your name over and over again until it has no meaning, it’s only a series of sounds.

As a blogger and a writer I spend most of my time in coffee shops (it’s where the majority of my student loan goes). Seeing as I’m so familiar with this location I thought it’d be the perfect place to give this exercise a go.

To start with it was challenging, to write so in depth about something as insignificant as how people are tapping on the table was oddly difficult. I found myself starting to get bored or very easily distracted. To challenge this I decided to run with my distraction, letting my feelings of being disjointed flow into my writing in the hopes it will add some sort of effect or mood to it. Once I’d let go of fighting my fleeting concentration I found my writing got a lot smoother and flowed a lot faster.

We were given this exercise as part of my creative writing pro’s class, where we are currently focusing on creative non fiction. The majority of us in the class are fiction writers, we’re story tellers at heart. But out stories are all rooted in fantasy, sure we’re going to research our topics and make sure that if things are set in the real world there are elements of truth in it, but we’re good at making things up as a rule. Making a familiar place strange challenged us to write a piece of work that was both interesting to read and grounded in truth.

I’ve always been a reader of fiction. My knowledge on non fiction has always been somewhat limited with the idea that the genre only contains biographies and school text books. However, since starting this module I’ve dipped my toes into the world of non fiction and I can say that I’m loving it. I’ve always thought I’d be a fiction writer, but the more I read of work that is grounded in truth the more I think I’m turning to the other side.

I’m currently writing my first book, it’s a fiction novelette/ novella (I’m yet to decide the exact word count for my story, right now my focus is getting that first draft done), what I love writing. I enjoy world building and thinking of these sometimes outrageous stories that give people a break from reality. But the more I dabble in non fiction the more I’m wondering if I want to have that be my genre of choice.

I hope you’ve enjoyed today’s post. I don’t know how many of you are casual non-fiction readers, so the worry with sharing this writing exercise was that no one would really care for it. But if you are a writer, I’d really recommend giving this exercise a go. Even if you don’t write non fiction it’s still a really good warm up for your writing.

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2 thoughts on “Making a familiar place strange

  1. Hi,

    Another great blog well done, I was thinking of you the other day, I managed to set up my blog page again, but was going to ask for a suggestions for my name – I’ve come up with whispering tales, but I don’t like it can you remember what I tried last time or have any other suggestions.

    Sarah

    On Wed, Feb 19, 2020 at 4:04 PM Lost In The Story wrote:

    > Arabella posted: “Location: Coffee shop Look at what people are ordering, > do they drink what you’d expect, is there a pattern in what people > have? Consider if coffee is worth it or could you have made instant coffee > at your flat? Try to describe the smell of the coffee be” >

    Liked by 1 person

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