Finding Myself Online. Or Not.

Mission: Identify twelve search keywords that would lead others to find you online. Go.

It’s okay, I’ll wait. Am waiting… Okay, two keywords. Can you come up with two?

I know, right? It’s really hard. But that’s what I have to do as part of a website redesign project I’m currently undertaking. If I want to be found online by those who don’t know my name (and there are a few of you), I must condense my online ramblings, posts, writing topics, and areas of specialized interest or expertise into a dozen keywords. These words can’t be too general like ‘traveller’ or ‘expat’ because I’ll never compete with Condé Nast Traveller Magazine or the billion other hits you’ll get under those search terms. They can’t include the vague term ‘writer’ because Poe, Rowling, Hemingway, and King seem to pip me to the post. I can’t be too specific either, like using the word ‘hiraeth’, because although hiraeth – meaning ‘intense longing for home with a sense of loss’- is ingrained in my very soul after so many years of geographical searching, it’s not a word many others know. Or can spell. Searches may be limited, therefore, to the one person on the planet who wakes up and says, ‘Today I’ll search the word “hiraeth” to see if anyone out there has written a novel about it. Oh, and let’s hope said novel also includes Exmoor ponies.’ A bit too niche, don’t you think? Another favourite word of mine is coddiwomple – ‘to travel in a purposeful manner towards a vague destination’. It defines both my own life’s journey and the novels I write. But is it a good keyword? Hands up if you’ve ever searched coddiwomple. Anyone? I thought not.

What to do. What to do. I blog, pay dues for a website, and scroll endlessly through millions of other people’s social media posts, (forgetting to mention my books on my own accounts), but marketing guru, I am not. By the way, if you search ‘marketing guru’, Seth Godin pops up. He’s everywhere. Well done, Seth. Admittedly, I’m not on every social media platform. I stick to Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Instagram mainly because I’m not expected to dance on those. Or at least I don’t think I am. And I’m not expected to use a filter that turns my face into a rabbit or gives me horns or transforms my voice into that of a robot on helium. I mean, who the heck would look for me, humorous fiction writer of a ‘certain age’, on TikTok and what would I be doing there if they did? Jamming to Uptown Funk while making my morning porridge or filming myself typing ‘The End’ on my latest novel in slow motion while my dog plays the accordion in the background? I have a feeling that last bit just shows I have no idea what TikTok does or even is. Which would be true. I bet Seth’s on TikTok. But I digress…

I should have a better handle by now on Who I Am. Professionally that is. I’ve given up trying to answer that question on a personal level, much to my family’s relief. So let’s get back to who’s looking for me online. And why. (Between you and me, I’m a bit afraid to ask, because what if the only one looking for me is that guy serving two years for pirating copies of independent novels? Or that kid I rolled down a steep hill on a dustbin lid when I was eight? Oh, come on! He wasn’t even hurt and Mum made me apologize and that’s all in the past and can we just move on now, please? This approach works in politics. Until it doesn’t.)

Maybe I’m asking the wrong question. Maybe the question isn’t, ‘Who’s looking for me?’. The question is, ‘Who’s NOT looking for me but will learn to love me if I can only identify the right keywords to get myself on their radar?’. Fear of discovery shouldn’t play a part in this. I love writing and I’m so grateful for the positive feedback I receive from readers. I need to put myself out there more and I’ve found a great professional design team to help with that.

I must march onwards in my search for search terms that improve my searchability in search engines. It’s like my perpetual search for home only without frequent flyer points or jetlag. I vow to spend the rest of the week soul-searching in order to produce my twelve terms that depict my core essence. This task will provide the perfect excuse for not getting back to editing my current work-in-progress. Procrastinator! That could be one of my search terms! I just know I’ll come up as number one in that. I’ll check it out. Later.

Happy googling to all of you reading this. Delighted you found me.

(PS Tim Urban’s funny TED Talk about procrastination comes up if you search that word. I’m not mentioned. At all. Which is good news. I think.)

Images: Alpha Stock Images

Does Humorous Travel Fiction Still Matter?

New Year’s Eve. We all held our breath for Big Ben to strike midnight over the empty streets of London, like waiting for the starter pistol in a race to a free brunch buffet. We waited for the ball to drop high above deserted Time Square, the last ping pong ball in the Powerball lottery drawing when we had all the other numbers. This was it! 2020 was outta here! Woo hoo, 2021! The year of the vaccine, the end of Trump and the beginning of round-the-world cruises for all!

*Throws glitter in the air while blowing party horn.

The bell tolled, the ball dropped (metaphysically, anyway), and yet. And yet…

2021: The sequel no one wanted to write. Or read.

COVID numbers continue to climb, in the case of the UK, despite national lockdowns. Trump saves his best for last, with an assault on the US Capital. The cruise lines cancel spring and summer. New COVID variants emerge and I don’t win the lottery, only in part, I’m sure, because I didn’t buy a ticket. Worst of all, in one last kick in the 2020 teeth, New Year’s Eve sees the passing of my life-long friend, Betty. She was my ticket to America and the inspiration for Mrs Althorp’s character in Dunster’s Calling. A ninety-two-year-long life, well lived and peacefully departed, but still. I spent the last days and hours with her, so grateful I moved back to England in time to enjoy these past several months. It was time for her to leave us. But the void that was 2020 is now permanent, and with loss comes reassessment of what matters.

I’m not the only one reassessing life, wondering what will never be again and what will rise like a phoenix out of the COVID ashes. ‘What’s next?’ is the anthem playing non-stop in my brain. What’s next? When my writing revolves around humour and travel and I’ve lost the thread on why it matters? What’s next? When I’m spending the New Year writing a eulogy instead of editing my latest novel set in Provence? The one I’ve been promising readers for a year now. What’s next when the vaccine is coming but it’s crystal clear it’s not the ‘shot in the arm’ for so many small (and large – RIP Debenhams) businesses fading away during lockdown? When the local pub and the iconic cream tea shop are gasping for air.

We’re all asking, ‘What’s next?’ of our communities, of our leaders, of our countries. But mostly of ourselves. How do we cope, change, adapt, rise anew? And do we have it in us to start 2021 as though our old lives still exist and matter? It all feels so different, even though we are the lucky ones. We’ve made it this far through the worst of times and long may that continue. But are they still relevant? These old lives. The ones we thought would last forever and that we controlled, at least for the most part. I struggle with what once seemed vital and now seems frivolous. Stories. Humorous stories. Travel stories. My work-in-progress could as well be set on an alien planet in the year 2300 as on the train to Provence. The fields of lavender and the medieval town of Les Baux-de-Provence, once so familiar in the pages of my manuscript, may as well be part of a dystopian sci-fi. That’s how out of touch it feels. That’s how much it now doesn’t seem to matter. (Not that dystopian sci-fi doesn’t matter. It just doesn’t fit my work.)

As a writer, making it all matter starts with putting my butt back in the chair after a long break. (In my defence, I did move continents when moving next door would have been a struggle.) I can’t worry about whether readers want lighter fare or heavier. Escapism or real life. All I can do is write what makes me happy and reminds me of past and future adventures. I need that. One word, one chapter, one story arc at a time. It starts with the belief others will want to visit the beautiful locations into which I plunk my characters. It starts with the belief a good laugh is still a good laugh and the search for home in foreign or domestic settings is ongoing for many of us. That universal themes are still that: universal.

Much has changed, yet much has stayed the same. We will always need humour and travel plans and fun and hope. And we have all these things, in books and in our own futures. The bells will ring, the glitter will rain down. All will be well, (even if I don’t win the lottery). Today I vow to write my funny stories of sunny places and the search for home. It still matters. If we all still believe it matters.

Onwards to Provence!

In memoriam: Betty Howett (1928-2020), Fellow of the British Horse Society. Mentor. Friend.