Saturday, December 3, 2011

What's In a (Pseudo)name? A guest post by C.C. Benison

Mystery author C.C. Benison and journalist Douglas Whiteway are both Canadian. From there, their paths diverge - Whiteway's career includes time reporting for the Winnipeg Tribune and The Winnipeg Free Press, and editing the Canadian history magazine The Beaver. Benison, meanwhile, has published three mysteries in the Her Majesty Investigates series, featuring the royally-employed housemaid Jane Bee, as well as the stand-alone thriller In Cold Type. His latest book is an updated twist on the classic English village mystery, featuring the Rev. Tom Christmas (yes, Anglican priests are traditionally called "Father") sleuthing in the not-entirely-idyllic town of Thornford Regis. The first in the series, Twelve Drummers Drumming, has just been released.

Why, I’m asked, do you write under a pseudonym? At this point in my career (such as it is), I’m almost inclined to say, “because it’s a great conversational gambit.” At public readings or at book launches, or in private exchanges where I’m introduced as that baffling creature, a fiction writer, it’s the ice-breaker question not just frequently, but almost always, asked.

And here’s my answer, or at least part of it: I wanted a separate identity from the nonfiction-writing me. I had spent decades working for or contributing to newspapers and magazines and seen the name accident of birth and parental selection had saddled me with, “Doug Whiteway”, printed many, many, oh many, times. The first time I saw my byline in a newspaper, many, many, oh many, years ago, I was thrilled to bits, gobsmacked, dazzled with the glory of it all. But in that particular thrills department, it was ever after all downhill.

When my first fiction was accepted for publication in the 1990s, I thought I might like to feel again that frisson of first-time pleasure and so I said to my editor – the inimitable Kate Miciak – that I’d like to publish under a pen name. Unfazed, she said, “then pick a name from the top of the alphabet – A, B, or C.” Intrigued, I said, “Okay. Sure. Why?” “Because,” she explained, “your books are more likely to be shelved at eye level in a bookstore.” Ah, marketing! My real surname, Whiteway, is disadvantageous: it puts me somewhere ankle-level. You have to bend down, such a pain, oy!

We batted around B names. She liked “Blessing.” I didn’t. I countered with blessing’s recondite synonym, “benison.” And so a pen name was born. Where the “C.C.” came from I can’t recall. Availability? Euphony? Milne had grabbed “A.A.” “B.B.” recalled a certain French actress. “D.D.” sounded like a character in a 60s BeachBlanketBingoBikiniÀGogo film. Cummings got “E.E.” (Excuse me, “e.e.”) “G.G.”? Gigi, am I a fool without a mind, or have I merely been too blind to realize? Oh Gigi! Munro (Saki) had “H.H.” “I.I.”? Aye Aye, captain! And so on. Two ‘K’s’ was one ‘K’ shy of cross burning. Unt – vorse! – ve vouldn’t vant to use ze “S.S.” vould ve?

And, yes, when a copy of my first crime novel, Death at Buckingham Palace, arrived at my door, I did experience a moment of giddy delight. It felt sort of metamorphose-y. I had been a caterpillar and now I was … well, at least a caterpillar with a new pair of shoes. But, of course, as with my experience seeing my byline printed those many, many, oh many, years ago, the thrill of seeing my (pen) name on a book cover soon palled, and life went on.

Now, because I’ve written nonfiction only intermittently since the late 90s and “C.C. Benison” fills more Google retail than “Doug Whiteway”, the other part of my standard reply has grown more relevant: It’s fun. I have an alter ego, a doppelganger, an evil (though possibly good) twin. I can put on an identity, then take it off, much the way, I suppose, an actor does. Writing fiction feels different than writing nonfiction anyway – it’s more trance-like – and so I feel like a different person doing it. A different person wants a different name.

Anyone can have writerly pseudonym. I don’t recommend the old nom de porn formula: (First Pet) + (Name of Street You Grew Up On) = Porn Name. (Mine is “Snowball Moorgate”, which wouldn’t get me a lick of work.) I suggest: (Childhood Best Friend) + (Name of Favourite Fictional Character) = Pen Name. If I had used that formula years ago, I would be, let’s see, Ross Yossarian. Which would shelve my books next to your big toe. Maybe that isn’t the best formula.

Hmmm. Under the traditional method, I could be Frisky Elmcrest, which does suggest a certain lack of character. I prefer C.C./Doug's suggestion, which would give me the nom de plume of PJ Bennet. I can almost see the serious British police procedurals lined up on the shelf. What has been your experience with pseudonyms, dear Reader? Have you ever been surprised at the name behind the name? Do you like "different authors" for different types of literature? And what would your pen name be?

You can find more information and read an excerpt from Twelve Drummers Drumming at C.C. Benison's website, and can chat with him on his Facebook page.


  1. Such a fun post CC/Doug! My porn name would be Schatze Sutton, which is actually a good one! Using the other formula, I'd end up maybe as Nancy Drew...uh, I think that one's been used.

    I'll be launching my pseudonym officially next month--Lucy Burdette. It's taken directly from my maternal grandmother, Lucille Burdette. She was a painter, not a writer, but I like to think she'd be pleased.

    Good luck with the new book CC--see you in the B's!

  2. My pseudoname would come from a charitable organization that continually messes up my name in its mailings: Ramoda Lon.

    But my porn name is the best! I grew up in French Louisiana. Our first pet was named Minou, the colloquial word for kitten. Our street didn't have a proper name, but my grandmother's house fronted it, and everyone called her by her nickname--la petit--which means "little one." When she got married, she was called Miss Tit, and our street was Tit's Lane. Which makes my porn name Kitten Tits.

  3. Thanks, Ms Burdette. See you in the B's indeed. And Ramona – yours has to be the best pet/street-constructed porn name I've ever come across!

  4. Laughing about initials and pseudonyms -- when I co-authored a series of mystery novels, we decided to use my maiden name (Ephron) and two initials. My co-author was Don Davidoff so the obvious pseudonym: D. H. Ephron.

    But as we all know DH (Like AA) is taken. Through convoluted logic we became G. H. Ephron. Fortunately now I write as me.

  5. What fun! And Doug/C.C., I loved the book. One of my favorites of the year. Looking forward to more adventures of Tom Christmas.

    My porn name would Jolie Briarwood. Or if I went with what our street was called when I was very small (same house, but new street was built), Jolie Arapaho. Either would have put me a shelf higher.

    As it is, I ended up with my ex-husband's surname, Crombie, which sounds nicely British for a writer of British crime fiction, and puts me with Agatha Christie, Michael Connelly, and Robert Crais. Not bad company.

  6. OH, with the best friend and fav character, I'd be Jill Finch. Wow. That's a great name! And I think I'll use it for a character. Thanks!

    My porn name is Rusty Ritter. Nuff said.

    Doug, your experimental journey through the alphabet was hilarious!!

    I think if I wever wrote a YA book I'd use my real first name, Harriet. Harriet Ryan. Good huh?

    Roberta, it's amazingly easy to think of you as Lucy.\

    Hmm. My captcha word is wedlexin. Which seems like a cute hobbit name, or something.

  7. What a fun and funny post, C.C./ Doug! According to your second method, my pen name would Miranda Darcy. Hmmm, has a nice ring. the pet-porn name would, alas, be Princess Broad. Maybe a little obvious. Ramona's is better.

    I may someday (when God graces me with twice the talent, time, and energy) write a fantasy series I've built a world for. I had thought if I did, I'd use my initials--L.L. Rodriguez. But after reading about the need for early-alphabet placing, I think I'd change to my maternal great-grandmother's name and be Sarah Duncan.

    Hank, I think you ought to put a different last name with the Harriet. with our last names in the Rs, we're down on the floor.

    I'll look forward to picking up your book on my next semi-daily trip to the bookstore, Doug.

  8. Names, I've had a few. Last names from marriages. A stage name. A sanskrit name from a brief excursion into a commune. One job wanted me to pick a new name because they already had employees with my first and nick names. So I used my maiden name as a one-word name. In the 70s computers didn't like this at all.
    By the porn name formula, I'd be Kit military bases. BF+FavCharacter name would be Wendy Ender.
    The best treat I've had from a multiple-named author was discovering the alias and a whole new (to me) shelf of books to read.
    Thanks to CC for his revealing post on the writerly pseudonym.
    Lucy, your grandmother's name is a winner.

  9. Great post! My maiden name actually starts with an A, but is French-Canadian, aka Cajun, so not very pronounce-able to many folks outside of Louisiana and the Cajun Gulf coast of Texas.

    No one can top Ramona's story, but my porn name from when I lived in New Orleans as a kid, would've been Lucky Marigny. Wouldn't my parents be proud? LOL
    Sounds like a stripper!

    BTW, my married last name begins with a "V", ugh. What to do?!

    Oh, and I had 3 best friends in grade school---Jan, Chris & Sherry, not just one, until Joanie when I moved to Long Island. Maybe Joan Wolfe/Christie? So many decisions!

  10. P.S. Love is my ex-husband's family name. British ancestry.

  11. Picking up on Deborah's note about her ex-husband's surname, Crombie, sounding nicely British for a writer of British crime fiction: I think my real surname, Whiteway, falls into the same category – British enough (it's native to Devon and Dorset and my grandfather came from Devon), but others in my family have suggested it has an unintended white-supremacist edge, which may another good reason to have a pseudonym. (On the other hand, I could have made hay with the old nickname for Broadway – The Great Whiteway!)

  12. So that's one of the keys for a successful writing career! I find this a really fun post that I can relate to, even though the farthest I got with my writing was our college weekly newsletter. Thanks for sharing!

  13. I’m fascinated with the Romanovs so I think this book sounds great!