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How To Choose A Pseudonym – A Case Study

How to Choose A Pseudonym – A Case Study

headshot of Denise Barnes

Denise Barnes, aka Fenella Forster

Do you write under a pseudonym? Should you? And which would you choose? British indie author Denise Barnes shares the story behind her pen-name for her debut novel.

Pseudonym, Pen-name, Nom de Plume – call it what you will. Many authors use another name, sometimes multiple names, for various genres. I had written and had published a couple of memoirs and automatically used Denise Barnes, but romantic fiction seemed to require a name which was a little more flowing and…well, romantic.

I used to love writing adventure serials at primary school and my favourite heroine’s name was Fenella, so that bit was easy. Now for the surname. My debut novel, Annie’s Story, the first of The Voyagers Trilogy, is set in 1913 and continues throughout the First World War so I thought it would be nice to have some connection to the period; something that had meaning for me.

Secret Inspiration

Many years ago my mother revealed a huge family secret to my sister and me that her father (our grandfather) was not her real father. I was delighted. For various reasons I had no love for him whatsoever. ‘Then who was our real grandfather?’ was my burning question. ‘My mother had an affair with a German prisoner of war,’ she answered, ‘and she fell with me.’

Of course I pounded her with more questions but she knew very little. My grandmother only told her that his name was ‘Forster’ but not even how to spell it. She did say he was the kindest man she ever knew, so that was a relief.

What a story! I’d love to know if there are any half cousins in Germany, and how mind-blowing if I could see a photograph of my grandfather. But my sister is very worried that if I start digging I’ll uncover something awful, as he may have had sons who were involved in the terrible atrocities of the Second World War. But I prefer to give him and his family the benefit of the doubt.

Cover of Annie's Story

Pen-name in practice

My mother has long since died but I truly believe she would have been pleased I’d taken her father’s name for my novels as she must have been curious about him. Mum’s younger sister, however, was really upset and accused me of honouring his name, but I’m not; I’m simply acknowledging him. After all, a grandfather is a very close relation. He may not even have known about my grandmother’s pregnancy. But I know he lived. And I’m very grateful because if it wasn’t for their love affair, my mother wouldn’t have been born, and neither would I!

The bonus is that it’s given me a brilliant idea for my next gritty but romantic novel. I can make it up to my heart’s content and finally meet my German ‘grandfather’ in the pages of my book, though I know I’ll have to brace myself for the reproach of my family.

The Impact of a Pen-name

I’d love to know the reasons why other authors choose their pen-names. And whether the new name has inspired them to write stories they might never have written. But my warning is to be mindful of the name you choose – it may have repercussions way beyond your fiction-writing imagination!

Thank goodness we writers have learnt to grow lovely thick skins!

OVER TO YOU If you have a pen-name, how did you choose yours? If you're sticking with your given name, would you ever write using a pseudonym? Join the conversation via the comments box!

#Authors - what's in a (pen)name? Case study of how @denisebarnesuk chose hers here #ww #writerswednesday Click To Tweet


Author: Denise Barnes

Denise always dreamed of being a full-time writer. From her experience in a German sanatorium she wrote: "From Bad to Wurst: Bavarian adventures of a veggie cook", and after selling her estate agency business to a pair of tricksters she wrote "SellerBeware: How Not To Sell Your Business". Her debut novel, "Annie’s Story, Book 1 of The Voyagers Trilogy", was published this year. "Juliet’s Story", Book 2 of the trilogy will be published in January 2016. "Kitty’s Story" will complete the trilogy. www.denisebarneswriter.com.


This Post Has 26 Comments
  1. My mother condemns me for having published under a pen name, and one which isn’t my maiden name or something. Marina Costa is my pen name. I had wanted to publish under my own name, but my publisher told me that I have a too long name and I need a short pen name, to remain in the readers’ memory. He suggested some coming from my names, but I liked none. I asked him if Marina Costa was short enough, and he liked it. I told him that I have my media accounts on this name, and he agreed it was a good choice, so… so was it.

    Marina is a name I love. If I had a daughter, I might have named her so. It is also the name of a character of mine (this was why I chose it for the media accounts). Many of my characters are named Marina, Emilia or Roxana.

    Actually, for wanting privacy, I liked the fact that in other countries, Marina Costa is rather a common name. In Spain, Portugal and… former colonies, Greece. Italy and wherever these nations have emigrated. I don’t like being too unique in the world (but I am rather unique in my country, where it is not a common name).

  2. I chose a pen name when I began writing short story memoirs….of my life as the largest marijuana dealer on the east coast in the 1990’s. I have since created a nice normal life for myself and simply don’t want to jeapordize my livelihood by using my real name. I have always had a knack for making money, and the thinking was “why rock the boat” for the mere possibility that writing could become my sole source of income.

    That being said, I wanted to make sure that the reader knew I was using a pen name. So, I chose John DePlume as my alter ego!

  3. I didn’t want to use a pen name but research found my real name (David Moody) was in use by a popular US horror novelist and a British boat builder!
    So pen name it was- I kept David and added Rory to suggest my red hair. I went with O’Neill – an old family name.
    The result David Rory O’Neill, was good but the Alli website search choked on it and I discovered a few other places that can’t cope with hyphenated of three word names. Be warned anyone going the three name route.

  4. I have two pen names. As a Secondary School Teacher, I felt that I should keep my writing separate from my day job, so I chose to use Kira Morgana as my main pen name.

    It’s unusual enough that I am top of any Google searches and actually has a meaning to me – Kira means “sun” in Persian, and Morgana is welsh for “by the sea”; I live in a welsh coastal village that gets a lot of sunshine in the summer so it seemed the perfect name. I publish Fantasy and Children’s books using it.

    My secondary name is the one that I use for more adult themes and things like horror / paranormal. I decided to have a second pen name more so that I could keep my genres straight in my head.

    I might amalgamate the work from the second into the first at some point though.

    1. Hi Kathy. From what you’ve told me I think you should definitely have a pen-name. As you know, I took my unknown grandfather’s name. But someone who’s replied to this post took the name of the town they were born in as their surname. And another author I know chose the street of the first house her family lived – ‘Redcliffe’ – which I thought a great surname.

      Do you have a middle name you could use? If you love cats you could be a ‘Kitty’ which is not far from your own name. Names seem to spring out in unexpected ways – often better than trolling through the phone book.

      Do let me know what you come up with. And good luck!

      Hi Kathy. From what you’ve told me I think you should definitely have a pen-name. As you know, I took my unknown grandfather’s name. But someone who’s replied to this post took the name of the town they were born in as their surname. And another author I know chose the street of the first house her family lived – ‘Redcliffe’ – which I thought a great surname.

      Do you have a middle name you could use? If you love cats you could be a ‘Kitty’ which is not far from your own name. Names seem to spring out in unexpected ways – often better than trolling through the phone book.

      Do let me know what you come up with. And good luck!

      Hi Mandy

      I love the meaning of your name and Kira is so pretty. Sounds perfect for you. And yes, I understand why you have a secondary pen-name. For what my advice is worth, I think you’d be wise to keep both of them as they serve a different purpose.

      Thanks so much for replying.

    2. Hi Mandy

      I tried to write to you before now but instead it reprinted another reply to Kathy above!
      Anyway, I was intrigued with your main pen-name, Kira Morgana and its meaning. Lovely! I can see why you needed a second one for you horror stuff!

      I think you’d be wise to keep them both separate!

      Thanks so much for commenting. All the best.

  5. I’m a freelance sports writer who covers hockey and I’ve written a series about a fictional hockey team, so I’ve been considering publishing under a pen name because I don’t want my fictional (and sexy) stories to be tied to my factual interactions and interviews with real players and teams. There’s always the possibility that people will automatically link one to the other and wonder about my professionalism as a journalist, etc. I’m not sure what to do at this point, and coming up with a pen name has been much harder than I ever thought it would be. Where do you start?!

    1. Hi Kathy. From what you’ve told me I think you should definitely have a pen-name. As you know, I took my unknown grandfather’s name. But someone who’s replied to this post took the name of the town they were born in as their surname. And another author I know chose the street of the first house her family lived – ‘Redcliffe’ – which I thought a great surname.

      Do you have a middle name you could use? If you love cats you could be a ‘Kitty’ which is not far from your own name. Names seem to spring out in unexpected ways – often better than trolling through the phone book.

      Do let me know what you come up with. And good luck!

  6. Shoshanna Evers is a pen name. I always knew I’d write under a pen name, for three reasons:
    1. No one can pronounce my real name properly.
    2. I write erotic romance novels but I live in a small church town in Idaho.
    3. Even before my books became more popular, I was wary of needing privacy/safety for me and my family.
    I chose the name before my first book was published in 2010. I searched everywhere for it (including Google, domain names, social media handles, Amazon etc) and determined the name could be all mine. Since then there is a German model who uses the same name spelled with one n, I believe. It no longer feels like a “fake” name, it’s just who I am. I answer to it, I get mail to it, etc etc. Only in my home town do I introduce myself as my married name. Everywhere else I am Shoshanna Evers 🙂

    1. Hello, Shoshanna. I really enjoyed the story of your pen-name but am curious as to know your real name. And it sounds to me as though the German model made her own search, came across yours, and thought it would fit if she dropped an ‘n’. Very flattering.
      I am getting used to ‘Fenella’ now, but family think I’m barmy. They just don’t understand the wonderful world of writers.

      Thanks for replying.

  7. Jon Moorthorpe is my chosen pen name. My full real name is John Edward Sykes and I have been writing for only the past two years.

    When I reached the stage where I felt I should have my own website I first tried John Sykes and quickly had three thousand hits only to find that John Sykes was lead guitarist with Thin Lizzy, Whitesnake, amongst many others. Fell at the first hurdle… I should have learned from this, but

    I then tried John Edward which had four thousand hits within two weeks only to find that John Edward the Psychic Medium at least equalled John Sykes in popularity. I know where I feature in the pecking order.

    My partner Jean then asked where was my birthplace – result Jon Moorthorpe.

    I have now learned the value of research!

    1. Oh, dear. You really had some competition there, John. Jon Moorthorpe sounds and looks great as a writer’s name. I’ve heard some other names used where people were born. My birthplace was March (very confusing when people ask me – they immediately say, ‘No, where you were born.’ I just repeat ‘March’ again and they usually remain very puzzled.) I can’t see myself as Denise March, or even Fenella March, but with your birthplace it’s perfect. It’s strange how our names and pseudonyms define us and even give people a clue as to what sort of person we are.

      Seems you must listen to Jean even more carefully in the future!

      Thanks for writing in. It made me laugh.

  8. More people now know me by my pseudonym than my real name, which is Áine McCarthy. Outside Ireland, people find it difficult to pronounce (it’s “awn-ya”, folks!) and when I started out as a novelist, my then publisher thought a short and easy (i.e. phonetic in English) name would be better. That evening, I was calling upstairs to my two children – ‘Ornagh! Ross! Dinner’s ready!’ – and I went, ooooh! It felt the perfect name had delivered itself. I asked them if they’d mind, they said fire ahead and Orna (anglicised version) Ross was born. Thanks so much for this post, Denise. I find writers reasons for choosing pseudonyms so interesting. Every writer is engaged in a creative double-act, between the writing and the life. For me, having a pseudonym keeps those two separate in a way that works for me.

    1. Oh, what fun, Orrrrrna! That’s such a great putting-together-of-an-author name and obviously suits you and your personality.

      You’re so right about the duo personality thing. I did a talk the other day on a business book I wrote under my own name: Seller Beware: How Not To Sell Your Business, and decided to put a few of my novels out on the table for sale as well. I’m pleased to say I sold all of them. But the attendees all bought the business book and I had to sign two different names in the space of a minute. It was weird but still feels write to be Fenella, and not Denise, for my novels.

      I thought I’d get a few interesting replies but they’re all so different. Thanks so much for sharing yours.

  9. Great story Denise. I have also chosen to write under a pseudonym. Not unlike yourself, I wanted to connect in some way to a grandparent I never knew, in this case, my maternal grandmother who died when my own mother was only 11 years old.

    Throughout my childhood various stories were told and re-told, perhaps embellished by my mother, as she recalled her grief as a young girl mourning the loss of a cherished parent, but nevertheless encapsulating the kind of a person my grandmother was. I’m sure you can resonate with the sort of exclamations …you have your grandmother’s eyes, or …just now, the way you smiled, was just like your grandmother, and on it would go.

    My grandmother’s maiden name was Guyton, one of the many European families to arrive on the first ships to New Zealand, but the only family with the name Guyton. I possessed a fertile imagination as a child and frequently invented stories surrounding the pioneer spirit of my Guyton ancestors and the interest in my grandmother, who I felt I knew intimately after all those stories, provided the inspiration for my pseudonym.

    My debut novel “Consequences” is the result of eight long years of perseverance! Choosing to go down the route of Indie publishing has not been without its trials, but I’m so glad I have the control and independence that self publishing offers.
    Good luck with your book.

    1. Morning, Adriana. I like your first name as well. So pleased you have the connection now with your grandmother. It think it’s so important. I bet you watch ‘Who Do You Think You Are’.
      Guyton is unusual and sounds right for an author.

      I started Annie’s Story 10 years ago! If I’d known it was going to take that long I would never have attempted it. But I did have Book 2 ready as the two books were one very thick one when I first finished the novel. And the sequel I thought I was writing became Book 3, the completed trilogy, after I split Annie and Juliet, the granddaughter. The things we writers go through to try and perfect our work!

      I wish you lots of luck on your book, too.

  10. You were very creative with your name, Rebecca. It really is satisfying to create yourself as an author. I honestly feel like a Fenella – sort of romantic and writerly – when I’m signing the novel, so I know exactly what you mean. So different from when I’m all suited up and signing the business book, Seller Beware: How Not To Sell Your Business, which I wrote under my own name of Denise Barnes.

    I like the way you’ve melded both names into one unusual but much simpler surname. And you’ve pleased both sides of the family – no mean feat 🙂

    Lots of luck!

  11. What a beautiful story!

    My real name is already hyphenated, so I carry both sides of my family with me wherever I go. I had considered choosing one or the other when publishing, as it’s tedious to constantly correct the spelling and pronunciation.

    Instead, I smushed it all together. Dier-McComb | D-M | Diem.

    I enjoyed the latin connotations and I had both my names in one. And having my pen name acts as a kind of stage persona as well. It actually helps boost my confidence (and overcome some anxiety) when connecting with fans.

  12. Hello, Edward. Thank you for reminding any readers of the post who are contemplating using a pseudonym to check first on Google. I did do a search on Amazon and no one by that name came up so I felt quite happy. Now, you’ve made me think I should have Googled it as well. So I’ll do it now. I’ll be really cheesed off if there’s another Fenella Forster author out there. 🙁

  13. That was a fascinating story, Denise – and it’s one that immediately sparks the imagination! I also understand completely why you would choose to use your grandfather’s name, in spite of soe of the family’s concerns – and why you would want to write a story around it. In the process of writing your novel, did you ever manage to dig out anymore information on your grandfather?

    I have something similar in my family history, but one generation further back with my great grandfather. He was baptised as ‘McDermot’ – but he was illegitimate (his mother a Gallagher), and his father never acknowledged him further. Great, great Granny Gallagher was a maid at local business, and young Mr McDermot was the owner’s son.

    So, via my great grandfather the immediate side of my Irish family became ‘McDermot’s’.

    Back in the late 70’s, my mother made a trip to Ireland and tried to re-connect with the ‘legitimate’ side of the family, but although the relationship was acknowledged as fact, the family were still extremely uncomfortable about it (three generations later!) and did not want to maintain any ties or contact.

    I suspect things might be different now, but I’m not sure if I tried to reach out again to the if any of the younger generations will even know the true story. Even so, I chose to use McDermot as my pen-name in remembrance of my gran – who knows, one day I might adapt her father’s story into fiction.

    Piper was my mother’s maiden name (my grandmother’s married name) and I like the combination it makes with McDermot, and what both represent to me. A google search didn’t turn up anyone with the same name, so hopefully I’m good to go 🙂

    1. I loved your story too, Piper. There could never be another combination such as yours! So pleased you’re using the two family names, so you completely understand why I chose my maternal grandfather’s name. I felt it was really important to acknowledge him.

      Annie’s Story, the novel that’s just published, was inspired by my paternal grandparents. They went as servants to Australia to ‘better themselves’ which is exactly what my heroine in ‘Annie’ does with her new husband. But I’m determined to write the story of my German grandfather after the current rom-com I’m writing as it might bring me closer to him when doing the research.

      I think you should do the same, and write your great-grandfather’s story. We can compare notes!

      So nice to hear from you.

      1. That’s a deal! 🙂 It’s surprising what a trove of material family histories can be, such as in your ‘Annie’s Story’. For me, that’s exactly the kind of hook that sparks my interest in reading.

  14. Once you’ve chosen a pseudonym, you should do a Google search on it. You don’t want a name that another writer is already using! But also, you don’t want close matches and those are harder to search for. For example, Fenella Forster is a great name for a romance novelist but what if there is another writer named Fenella Foster? Many readers could get confused Ask librarians or the members of ALLI if they can think of other names that are similar.. Good luck with your next gritty but realistic novel.

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