A rose by any other name . . .
The full quote from William Shakespeare’s play Romeo and Juliet is “What's in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”
What I interpret it to mean is that it doesn’t matter what something is called, it matters what something is. I am writer, that is what I do. But I do it under three different pen names. “Why?” You may ask. Sometimes I wonder that same thing, too.
Yes, writing under pen names can get hard to keep straight. I am known to some people (an ever-growing number of people) as Abby. But I can’t enter contracts or cash a royalty check under that name. And when I show my family what I’ve accomplished as Abby, they say, “But that’s not really you!” So, the question to authors is, why not just use your legal name? Well, that’s a good question, and certainly one that I have been asked occasionally.
I don’t think it makes a difference to the reader that authors use a pen name, that’s how they were introduced to the author and who they’ve come to know. And per an interpretation of Shakespeare’s line, it doesn’t make the person any less of a writer. But let’s look at just a few of the many reasons authors use a pen name.
Sometimes readers have pre-conceived ideas of what a particular writer will publish. For instance, at one time in our history women weren’t allowed (or given credence) to be able to do much more than needlepoint and swoon (and bear children). As such, women writers, to mask their out-of-character actions, sometimes adopted nom de plumes. Think nineteenth century author Mary Ann Evans who wrote as George Eliot or Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin, born in 1804 and known to us as George Sand.
Or, perhaps an author’s given name is linked to what they do in real life and they don’t want to link or mix their writing pursuits to their careers. This is a common practice, so I hear, with authors who pen erotica or who write as whistleblowers. But it isn’t only done for books that may contain things that over the top or done for anonymity. Think Stacey Abrams, a well-known politician, who writes romance as Selena Montgomery. And while I’m not writing erotica (is murder just as bad?) or am well-known that is how I started using a pen name.
It’s not the only reason I use a pen name, but in real life, at the time I started writing, I had been a lawyer and my genre of choice was murder mysteries. Not such a good association. I could imagine how people would ask if those were real life cases or people I represented when reading my stories. I felt it better to adopt a pen name. I didn’t go too far from the real me, though. Vandiver is my maiden name, and while I haven’t used it legally for forty years, it’s still part of me.
A pen name can act as a shield of sorts. It allows an author to conceal their identity and shed pre-conceived notions about who they are or what they write. And that’s important if a reader is to get the full enjoyment of a story that is intended by the author. I wouldn’t want my readers, as they turn the page, speculating if my cozy mysteries are true.
“Okay,” you say, “that’s understandable, Abby, but you said you had three pen names. C’mon, what gives?” Okay. I’ll tell you. Don’t be surprised, though, because it’s not complicated or that exciting. Lol.
I wrote as a self-published author and penned more than twenty novels and short stories as Abby L. Vandiver. But when I got a deal with a Big Five publisher, they were concerned that any other books coming out under Abby L. Vandiver would compete with all their efforts for sales. I know. I know. I am still the same person. But they were looking at it from a business perspective and I had to respect that. So, I came up with Abby Collette. A different name, but easy for my readers. I was still Abby and I was still writing cozy mysteries. And unknown to everyone, I was still me. You see, my real middle name is Collette.
There are a lot of times authors adopt a pen name at the publisher’s request as happened with me when I signed the contract to write the An Ice Cream Parlor Mystery series. But as I noted earlier, sometimes it’s because of a link with an author’s name and what they write. This time, in picking my third pen name, I did it based on my writing reputation.
Perceived scrutiny of your old work can stifle the imagination you need in your new work. As an established author, you worry about what your readers will think of you if you write something different, something new. And with that fear, you may not write your best work. Think J. K. Rowling changing her name and writing as Robert Galbraith after penning her Harry Potter series. She explained you can be a certain kind of writer by changing your author name and can publish “without hype or expectation.”
Recently, I signed a contract with Lake Union, an imprint of Amazon, to write a women’s fiction novel, Where Wild Peaches Grow. It is a completely different kind of book and as we all know, readers don’t enjoy all genres. I didn’t want my readers to see my name, pick up the book without a second thought and be surprised. Surprise! It’s not a cozy! So, for that reason I will be writing as Cade Bentley. And no, neither Cade nor Bentley are my legal names. I don’t know how I came up with that name. I just felt it was better to start fresh, build a new following and platform as someone different since I was writing in a new genre.
But don’t worry, I’m still me . . . whoever that is!