Pleased to Meet You, Hope You Guess My Name*

Not very long ago, Elizabeth Spann Craig posed a really interesting question on her excellent blog. Her question had to do with using a pen name when one writes. It’s an interesting question, too, for an author to consider. When I first began to write fiction, several people asked me whether I would use a pen name, since I’d already had some non-fiction books published. I took the decision at the time to use my real name for my fiction. I honestly can’t say that I had a well-thought-out reason for doing so; probably the best way to describe my thinking is that I didn’t have a good reason not to use my real name for both my fiction and my non-fiction. And I’m not alone in that choice.

Rob Kitchin, for instance, is the author of two fine crime fiction novels, The Rule Book and The White Gallows. Both feature his sleuth Colm McEvoy. Kitchin also uses his own name as the author or co-author of several texts on human geography including Key Texts in Human Geography, The Cognition of Geographic Space and Disability, Space and Society (Changing Geography).

Adrian Hyland has also chosen to use his own name for different kinds of writing. Crime fiction fans know and admire him for his novels Diamond Dove (AKA Moonlight Downs) and Gunshot Road, which feature Aboriginal Community Police Officer (ACPO) Emily Tempest. Hyland has also written Kinglake-350, a non-fiction account of Australia’s worst bush fire, the Kinglake fires of 8 February 2009. This book gives an account of the outbreak of the fires and their paths, tells the story of how various people coped with them and how the whole process was managed. The book also takes up the larger global issues of how the conditions that led to the fires were created.

Another author who’s chosen to use her own name for all of her work is Paddy Richardson. Richardson’s written two collections of short stories and a novel, The Company of a Daughter, that aren’t crime fiction. She’s also written two crime fiction novels, Hunting Blind and Traces of Red, as well as A Year to Learn a Woman, which is a novel of psychological suspense.

There are many other authors, too, who’ve used their own names for all of their writing no matter the genre or sub-genre. I’m sure you could think of more than I could. But there are also authors who’ve chosen to use different names for different kinds of writing.

For instance, Agatha Christie is one of the best-known names in crime fiction. Under her own name she wrote several crime fiction series, standalones and short story collections. What not everyone knows is that she also wrote six other novels under the name of Mary Westmacott. The Westmacott novels aren’t crime fiction. They feature a variety of characters and plots and in them Christie explores identity, relationships, love in its various forms and even obsession. What’s interesting, too, is that the Mary Westmacott novels were published during the years that the Agatha Christie novels were being published. That is, Christie didn’t begin by using one name and then choose another. She used a pen name, or so I understand, to “try something different.”

Another author who’s chosen to write different kinds of novels under different names is Alan Orloff. Under his own name, Orloff has written a crime fiction standalone, Diamonds for the Dead (Is Josh Handleman going to make a return, Alan?) and the Last Laff series, a crime fiction series featuring standup comedian Channing Hayes. Under the name Zak Allen, Orloff has also written two standalone horror/thriller novels, The Taste and First Time Killer.

Nora Roberts has also chosen to use different names for different kinds of novels. Under her own name, Roberts has written many romance novels, some of which are standalones and some of which are small series. In fact, she was the first author to be inducted into the Romance Writers of America Hall of Fame. But Roberts has another identity: J.D. Robb. Under that pen name, she writes the In Death series featuring police officer Eve Dallas. She’s also used other pen names for a few of her works.

Some authors choose to use pen names even when they don’t venture far outside their genre, so to speak. For instance, Ruth Rendell has been writing under her own name since 1964’s release of the first novel in her popular Inspector Wexford series, From Doon With Death. Since that time, Rendell has also written several standalones and short stories using her own name. Since 1986’s A Dark-Adapted Eye, Rendell has also written novels of dark psychological suspense under the name of Barbara Vine. Under both names, she’s won millions of fans and it’s common knowledge that Ruth Rendell and Barbara Vine are one and the same.

John Dickson Carr wrote the Gideon Fell crime fiction series (and many other novels, too) under his own name. There are far too many to list here, but the name of John Dickson Carr is one of the most famous names in Golden Age crime fiction. Carr also wrote several novels under the name of Carter Dickson. Many of the Carter Dickson novels feature locked-room expert Sir Henry Merrivale. Carr also wrote several short stories under both names.

Elizabeth Spann Craig has used her own name for her series featuring the small town of Bradley, North Carolina and retired teacher Myrtle Clover. She’s chosen to use a pen name, Riley Adams, for her Memphis Barbecue series that features restaurant owner Lulu Taylor and takes place mostly in Memphis. Craig’s chosen to use her own name for her upcoming Southern Quilting series which features retired museum curator Beatrice Coleman. All three series are cosy series that take place in the American South, but they feature different kinds of sleuths and other characters, and different settings.

As you can see, there really isn’t a “right answer” as to whether an author should use a pen name or not. Some very successful authors do; others don’t. What’s your view? Is it off-putting when an author you know from one kind of writing also does another? Do you prefer that authors use pen names for different kinds of writing? If you’re a writer, how do you feel? Do you (will you) use a pen name? Why?




*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Rolling Stones’ Sympathy for the Devil.


Filed under Adrian Hyland, Agatha Christie, Alan Orloff, Barbara Vine, Carter Dickson, J.D. Robb, John Dickson Carr, Mary Westmacott, Nora Roberts, Paddy Richardson, Rob Kitchin, Ruth Rendell, Zak Allen

28 responses to “Pleased to Meet You, Hope You Guess My Name*

  1. I’ve used my name for my mystery writing, because (honestly) it never occurred to me not to! I’ve got a WIP (the ‘p’ being somewhat sporadic in nature) which is a romantic comedy – very different from my historical mysteries or my mystery games. That I would put out there under a different name, simply to avoid confusion.

    • Elspeth – Now, that’s a good reason to use a pen name, actually. Readers who expect a mystery might indeed be confused to see a romantic comedy under your name. And as an aside, I’d be really interested to see how you handle that genre…

  2. Thanks for the shout-out, Margot! I decided to use a pen name (actually, the author line on the book is “Alan Orloff writing as Zak Allen”) because I wanted to make it clear to readers that the tone of the Zak Allen books is different than the tone of my Alan Orloff books (much darker and more violent). I didn’t want any fans of the relatively “gentle” DIAMONDS FOR THE DEAD to pick up THE TASTE thinking that, because they were written by the same person, the books would be similar in tone. Those poor souls would have been in for quite a surprise!

    • Alan/Zak 😉 – Yes, they would indeed. The Taste is definitely more violent and darker than Diamonds… or your Last Laff series. I’ve not yet had the chance (Insert blush of shame here) to start First Time Killer yet, but if it too is darker and more violent than your Josh Handleman or Channing Hayes novels, it makes sense to make that clear to readers.
      And trust me, it’s my pleasure to send you a shout-out :-).

  3. I’ve used my real name too, but now that I’m genre hopping, I’m wondering what I should do. It would be such a pain to have to start up a new and separate website/blog for non-crime fiction…

    Cricket McRae’s solution was to have a pen name for the new mystery series and maintain separate blogs, but to show both author names and their books on a shared website.

    • Pat – It really is time-consuming and can be tiresome to have keep separate “author identities” for one’s different names. As you say, that means blogs, websites and the like. That’s one reason for which I’m glad I opted not to use a pen name for my fiction.
      It sounds as though Cricket McRae has a workable idea for keeping separate names for her series, but not go too crazy with the workload. At least if there’s just one website, that’s one less thing to manage…

  4. Margot, I enjoyed this look at pen names. I was wondering the other day if there was a process an author had to go through to use a pen name for their work. As a blogger/reviewer I use a pen name but there is no monetary gain from that. Is it different if there is? An interesting topic to ponder.

    Thoughts in Progress

    • Mason – You raise a really interesting question about whether there is a process an author goes through to get (use) a pen name. I myself don’t use a pen name, so I don’t know from experience (perhaps a commenter who does use a pen name can add some insight?). I believe, though, that if an author is contracted for a book, that contract will outline the use of the pen name. And an author can set up a blog or website using her or his pen name; I’ve seen that happen, too.
      It’s interesting you’d mention that, too, because the logistics of using a pen name can, I’m sure, get complicated. And yes, it is different for bloggers and reviewers who, as you say, don’t earn money from the use of a pen name. It is an interesting topic isn’t it?

  5. kathy d.

    This is a very interesting question. I say this as I’m in the midst of reading Book II by Ariana Franklin in the delightful Adelia Aguilar series, knowing that Diana Norman was the author’s real name. I’ve just learned that not only did Norman write non-fiction, but she wrote many works of historical fiction, which were very well liked by her readers. So now I’m on a mission to locate some of those books, without paying a ransom; some of her books, which are rare editions, are very costly. Some are not, and so, since I and several friends are smitten with her writing, I am looking to get some of her other books.
    Perhaps she — or her publisher — thought the Adelia Aguilar series really had to pop out at mystery readers. It had to be special — it is. And it needed to be marketed as one series by one author whose name stands out.
    I keep explaining to friends that Ariana Franklin is a pen name. They look at me quite puzzled.
    I am looking forward to reading some of Norman’s other novels.
    Donald Westlake wrote under other names, so did John Dickson Carr. I’m glad Michael Connelly, Sara Paretsky, Henning Mankell, Arnaldur Indridason and other favorite authors of mine didn’t confuse us this way.

    • Kathy – Right you are about Diana Norman using the name Ariana Franklin. I don’t know for sure why she used a pen name; it could very well be to separate her crime fiction work from her other writing. Or perhaps her publisher suggested that it might be confusing for readers if she wrote her Adelia Aguilar series under her own name. Either way it’s interesting that she chose to use a pen name for the Adelia Aguilar series. I’ll be interested to hear what you think of Norman’s non-fiction and historical (not historical crime) novels.
      I’d forgotten, honestly, that Donald Westlake used pen names, too; thanks for the reminder. But yes, Connelly, Paretsky, Mankell and others use their own names, and for their fans, that can be a good thing (e.g. “Oh, it’s a Connelly book; I’ll probably like it.” )

  6. Hello, Ms Kinberg! I’m being simplistic here but my earliest memory of a pen name was Franklin W. Dixon who I thought was the man behind HARDY BOYS. I discovered, much later, that FWD is a collective pseudonym for various writers who wrote the YA books. I don’t know why but I recall being a trifle disappointed at the time. I read some 80 of these books and one fine day I find that Dixon doesn’t exist.

    James Hadley Chase is another famous pseudonym, of British writer Rene Brabazon Raymond.

    I guess I’d prefer it if authors wrote under their real names. Pen names may not be as off-putting in crime fiction as it might be in other fiction and non-fiction. I’m not sure a pen name adds to the suspense – I might still read the book one way or the other. Pen names work best in a series.

    Personally, I’d write under my own name even if it fell off the cover, as it’s likely to!

    Meanwhile, I’d like to read Adrian Hyland’s KINGLAKE-350 as I’m currently reading Nevil Shute’s BEYOND THE BLACK STUMP, a slow but engrossing tale based in the Australian outback.

    Thank you.

    • Prashant – It’s funny you would mention Franklin W. Dixon and the Hardy Boys series. I remember reading the Nancy Drew mysteries as a child. They were written by Carolyn Keene, who also turned out to be a pseudonym for a group of writers. Interesting phenomenon and I’m sure it must have been a jolt to you – it was to me.
      Thanks for reminding me about James Hadley Chase, too. Right you are about that famous pseudonym. And you’re not alone in preferring that authors use their own names. Sometimes readers just find that it’s easier if an author uses her or his own name.
      You make an interesting point about the difference between series and standalones when it comes to the choice to use a pen name. Perhaps a pen name helps “brand” a series in a certain way so that it stands out for readers. That’s a really interesting point!
      And about Adrian Hyland? His work is superb I think. I really do hope you get to read some of it. An Australian friend once commented “Adrian Hyland is a national b****y treasure.” She has a point…

  7. sue rosly

    Another interesting example is Barbara Mertz (academic books) Barbara Michaels (Gothic style thrillers) and Elizabeth Peters (Amelia Peabody series). A bit like Ruth Rendell in keeping different styles under different names.

    And what about Josephine Tey (detective stories) and Gordon Daviot (plays).

    As a reader I know that books by Barbara Vine will be quite different to those by Ruth Rendell.

    I appreciate the guide given by different pen names and I imagine that there is a freedom for writers to explore whole new worlds of experience.

    And can I say it is well worth reading Adrian Hyland’s book on the Victorian bush fires.

    • Sue – You are quite right about Barbara Mertz/Barbara Michaels/Elizabeth Peters – another author that I didn’t mention here so I’m so glad that you did. And yes, her choice to use different pen names for different styles of writing is a little like Ruth Rendell’s; that’s an apt comparison. And it makes sense, too; as you say, one knows that a Barbara Vine novel will be different to a Ruth Rendell novel. Readers who prefer one or the other style will know, if you will, what they’re getting.
      And yes of course there’s Josephine Tey/Gordon Daviot. That’s a really interesting example of the use of a pen name for different kinds of writing, too. It’s an interesting contrast to Agatha Christie, who used her own name for her plays as well as for her stories and novels.
      You’re quite right that using a pen name frees the author to explore different sorts of writing and different genres. Pen names also let readers know, if you will, what they’re getting.
      And I’m very glad you enjoyed Kinglake-350. Adrian Hyland is a superbly talented writer.

  8. Hello Margot – great post. The use of a literary soubriquet has changed a lot from its heydays in the middle of the last century and is still an interesting one in the blogging age. Half the sites I regularly visit, like yours and Prashant’s for instance, are clearly appearing as by yourselves (sic) – on the other hand, half of the others are run by people using somekind of blogging ‘supraname’ or identity – indeed, I do too, though to be honest it was simply derived from the name of my original blog (now no more). I don’t think I was trying to hide behind a shield, but perhaps I was – I do publish elsewhere in print under my own name and I suspect it may have been more a question of ‘branding. The Rendell/Vine example is certainly a case in point as the pseudonym was known right from the start (i.e. the cover emblazoned with ‘Ruth Rendell writing as Barbara Vine’) and it was more a way of alerting readers that the content would be in a different style. There was that great instance a few years ago when Doris Lessing made a point of sending out a new novel under a different name (‘Jane Somers’) to see if publishers would be interested in it – and for the most part, they turned it down until they found out who she was. There is a a bit of snobbery when it comes to crime when ‘literary’ authors such as John Banville and Julian Barnes regularly publish genre fction under a different name, though this seems to be gettign rarer and rarer, probably because it is harder to hide in the Internet Age.

    Jeff Pierce over at The Rap Sheet always makes a point of emphasising those who publish their blog posts under pseudonyms or anonymously, and to an extent I understand his point.

    I have been considering returing by ‘Cavershamragu’ identity (as it were) and just adding my own name (Sergio Angelini) and the only ting that is really stopping my is a caution over identity theft, which on the Internet does seem rampant – for the same reason, in otherwords, that I try not to give away too much of myself on my Facebook page. Friends of mine have kids who, having now turned 13, are just about to start their dip into social networking and have very real concerns in this regard. It’s a puzzler alright – might even ake a good theme for a mystery novel or two …

    Sergio (Tipping My Fedora)

    • Sergio – Thanks for the kind words :-). It’s so interesting isn’t it to see the way people use (or don’t use) their own names on their blogs. I hadn’t thought about that when I was preparing this post but you’re quite right. Some people (as you say, I’m one of them and so is Prashant) use their own names. Others either use a pseudonym or some other sobriquet. I chose to use my own name on my blog because, quite frankly, I wanted readers to get to know me and my writing. When one’s not a “household word” one has to make sure people learn one’s name. That said, though, I do understand why people prefer not to use their own names when they go online. As you say, it’s a risky world out there in terms of identity theft and hacking, and one does have to be careful. I, too, limit what I make available on my Facebook page and author page, and so far *touch wood* I’ve not had a problem. Come to think of it, that would be an interesting idea for a mystery/crime novel. Thanks for the inspiration :-).
      You also bring up a really interesting point about “branding.” Once an author has an established “name,” using a pseudonym can possibly be a detraction unless, as Ruth Rendell did, one makes it clear that this new name has the purpose of identifying a different sort of writing the author is doing. As you say, the Rendell/Vine names were clearly linked, so that readers knew the quality they’d be getting, so to speak. But they also knew that the Barbara Vine novels represented a different sort of novel. Well-taken point!
      I’m glad you brought up the phenomenon of writing literary fiction under one name and genre fiction under another. You have a well-taken point that there is a sort of snobbery about that – or has been. I wonder whether, as it continues to be harder to “hide behind” a pseudonym, that attitude will continue to change.

  9. Stephen King began writing as Richard Bachmann, but only made his breakthrough as Stephen King (with Carrie, I believe). Later, the RB books were reissued with the Stephen King name also prominently on the cover.
    Ian Rankin did something similar but he used the same name throughout. The quality of his first series is very different from his Rebus and subsequent novels, however.
    Quite a few authors are asked to change their name by their publishers. I did read a post fairly recently by someone who said this had happened to her, when her first novel was published.

    • Maxine – Thanks for mentioning Stephen King. Yes indeed he wrote as Richard Bachmann. Michael Crichton used a pseudonym, too, at first – Jeffery Hudson. And just as happened in the case of King, Crichton’s A Case of Need was later re-issued with Crichton’s own name (Michael Crichton writing as Jeffery Hudson). That makes sense, since fans of King and Crichton might not otherwise realise those books were written by those authors. That’s a financially smart publishing decision.
      You also make a well-taken point that publishers sometimes request a pseudonym. That may be for the purpose of “branding” a series or type of writing, or for another good reason. And lots of authors heed that request.

  10. Thanks for the mention, Margot! I have a feeling that I will use other pen names, in the future, too…when I branch out into other genres. It sure does make the promo tougher, but I think it makes things fairer to the reader.

    • Elizabeth – My pleasure! It was, after all, your excellent post that got me thinking about this issue. You’re right that it complicates promo as well as all of the other logistics of being an author. But as you say, using pen names can make things easier on the reader and it certainly alerts the reader that “this is something different.” I didn’t use a pen name when I made the move from non-fiction to fiction, but perhaps if I wrote another kind of fiction (i.e. not crime fiction) I might use one. Readers do deserve to know what they’re getting.

  11. I was very interested in the article in the NYT this week about a writer who was unable to sell her fourth book until she used a pen name. That BOOK SCAN is sinking a lot of writers.

    • Patti – Oh, how interesting that they’re touching on this same issue! And I know what you mean about Book Scan. On one hand, it does provide useful sales information. But you’re absolutely right; any author who’s not a best seller runs a real risk…

  12. An interesting post as always. Although the idea of having a pen name intrigues me, I will stick to my own name for all that I write – plays, literary fiction and mysteries. I did toy for many years with the name ‘Fern Nestlewood’ as a sobriquet for a harlequin-type book I thought I’d write. As I didn’t write the book I shall just keep the name in my apron pocket for another day! I do have a few aliases when performing murder mystery weekends – my fave is Ninette Beazley, Nose of the North – an investigative journalist!

    • Jan – Thank you :-). Like you, for the moment I think I’ll use my own name for all of my writing. I never say, “never,” though; although I just did ;-). By the way, I think Fern Nestlewood is a great name! I hope you do use it at some point. And I think Ninette Beazley, Nose of the North is absolutely inspired! I would love to see one of your murder mystery weekends; I’ll bet they’re just wonderful.

  13. I’m not close to having anything published yet but I have (of course!) given lots of thought to what name I’ll publish under if and when it happens. I have my ex-husband’s surname so thought I might use something different. Then I realised it was also my daughters’ name and they would be so proud. So, reality wins out 🙂

  14. Personally, it doesn’t matter to me if an author uses pen names. If I like the writing, I’ll track down all the various names. Pen names make sense, particularly if well-known authors want to try other types of writing, because I’ve seen how readers can object nastily when a favorite author tries to take them out of their comfort zone. It’s not pretty!

    • Cathy – No, indeed it’s not pretty at all. And for that reason it can be really helpful to use pen names, so readers will know the kind of writing they’ll be getting. And for most authors, it’s not really difficult to find out which pen name is associated with which author. As you say, readers who like the writing will track down other work by that author.

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