Romantic pen names: when the author is a character
A friend of a friend approached with an interesting challenge. She's attempting to break into the romance novel business. Could I offer any advice on picking a suitable pen name?
Pseudonyms have a long literary tradition, but they're especially common in genre fiction. Some authors adopt a pen name to protect their real identities, especially if their writing is on the steamy side. A string of bodice rippers doesn't fit in with every resume. Others choose pen names to spruce up a name they consider undesirable for the marketplace -- one that's hard to spell, for instance, or a masculine identity in a feminine genre. Still others establish separate identities for separate sub-genres. It's not unusual to find romance novelists with half a dozen different pen names to suit different occasions. In each case, the fiction writer is in the intriguing position of creating him/herself as a kind of character for the reader.
When romance authors choose names for their heroines, they aim for maximum romantic effect within the context of the genre. Recent Harlequin Regency offerings have paired the lovely likes of Christiana Daventry and Cressida Bramley with irrestible gents like Philemon Brittle and Valerian Inglemoore. (No, historical accuracy in naming is not a priority. Real Regency England names were hopelessly conservative, with vast numbers of Johns and Marys.) If you prefer your romances Old West style you can cosy up with couples like Maggie Grace and Garret Daines, or Kate Wells and Sam Pickett.
You might expect author pen names to follow the same genre pattern. In fact, romance author name styles hold steady across sub-genres. Here are some of the most common first names of current Harlequin authors from a variety of series:
Nary a Cressida Bramley in the bunch. Interesting, eh? In fact, the list of first names is so strikingly normal that one might conclude they're all real. Some doubtless are, but a peek at the surnames says surely not all. I compiled a list of 60 recent Harlequin authors and almost all had British isles surnames of one or two syllables. That's hardly a representative sample of Sharons and Sandras. Checking lists of known romance author pseudonyms, the pattern held. Typical pen names were Paula, Eileen and Deborah, with short British-styled last names.
Why no Cressidas? The goal of a romance author name isn't to be romantic. It's to be warm, approachable, and above all trustworthy. You're putting your fantasies in the author's hands, and you want a cozy confidante. If she sounds too fake, or haughty, or judgmental, you back away. Yes, the author has to sound believable even when the book itself is called something like The Playboy Sheikh's Virgin Stable-Girl.
Right now the typical romance author name is from the "Mid-Century America" style category in the Baby Name Wizard book. If you're just starting out in your romance career, you might inch a tad younger with a "Timeless" or "New Classic" name. Stephanie perhaps, or Rebecca? And don't forget that snappy British-sounding surname. Believability is good, but you can only take it so far.