• Cate

On Writing: The Importance of Names

Or, To Be or Not To Be Yourself?

(Using a Pen Name)

A question that frequently comes up in various groups where beginning writers hang out is about choosing to use a pen name or a pseudonym. Or even more than one.

I’ve heard lots of arguments both for and against over time, and, really, it is something that only you can make a decision about. But I will endeavour to give you some food for thought. Starting with, names are incredibly important.

I’ll say that again.

Names are incredibly important.

Anyone who has ever named a character in a story knows that.

Possibly so do parents, although, over my many years as a teacher, I’ve often had pause for thought about what the parents were actually thinking at the point at which they chose their child’s name. I will not mention any names in particular, but I will say, for goodness sake please don’t get creative with spelling and do think about what the name actually means.

Okay, I will mention one name, once there was a Jhon...

All right, two: I knew an Ebony with such blonde hair that you could almost have just called it white.

And they were just... let's say, there were more...

Anyway. Back to pen names.

I’ll state up front that it is not something to which I gave enough thought.

Why not? I went with the simple decision to use my own name. Cate Whittle.

Okay, my name is actually Catherine and I do live a strange life of being called Cate by some people, and Catherine by others, whilst some members of my family (and one or two long-time friends) persist with my childhood Cathy. I often joke that anything is okay so long as you don’t call me late for dinner, but that is not quite true. Calling me Cath may well result in a crime of passion on my part, or, more likely, tears of frustration.

Also Whittle is my married name – a name I embraced with delight from the moment of my marriage, as I thought it would stop the problem of forever having to spell my maiden name. Lee, variously spelled over the years (by other people) as Lee, Lea, Leigh, Legh, Ley, and… you get the picture.

A lee (by whatever spelling) refers to a field with a stream running through it. Interestingly, whittle (which we know is OE because of the unique partnering of the 'wh' - although originally it would have been 'hw', making the pronunciation of hwo and hwat by my Irish Junior 3 teacher absolutely correct) also refers to a field - this time either a 'white lee' or a 'wheat lee'.

Plus I was once stopped on the stairs in Hall at Uni and asked, very politely, why I wasn’t Chinese. My answer was that I wasn’t sure why I wasn’t Chinese – other than the fact that neither of my parents were – but that Lee is a fairly common name in the north of England and Scotland, where my family originated.

I think I confused the asker further when she said, ‘Oh, were you born in England?’ and I answered, truthfully, ‘No, I was born in Africa.’ She, it turned out, was also a Lee, but was (you probably guessed it) Chinese. Or rather, it transpired, her family originated in China and she was born in Sydney. We were both Australian. The whole conversation had occurred because she had seen my name printed on my door and spotted me coming in and out, very much an Anglo-Saxon female of not-Chinese origin.

In a truly great story we would soon become firm friends, but our deep, existential conversation was quite possibly the only time we ever spoke with each other, although we did smile and exchange a wave every now and again.

She was a Science student. I was not.

Not that there is anything wrong with Science students (in fact, I married one - but he was in my tutor group at Hall) - we just tended to move in different circles.

But I digress.

Also, again, I – rather old fashionedly – wanted to be Mrs Whittle so very much (and yes, nearly 38 years later, I am still very happy to be Mrs Whittle, just so’s you know, although that doesn’t mean that there aren’t times when other crimes of passion haven’t been on the cards).

It didn’t solve the spelling problem. I now just go with ‘that’s with a C, and, Whittle, W H I T T L E’. I don’t even bother with ‘double-T’ because that seems to cause confusion, too.

So... Cate Whittle.

Innocuous it seems, although still not straightforward to spell.

I chose it because of ego. I wanted to see MY name on a book. It is a nice feeling.

However – and it is a big however – I probably should have gone back to my maiden name (and possibly spelt Cate with a K, although that is a different problem that goes along with the spelling thing).


Well, it is simply a matter of logistics. L (for Lee) is in the middle of the alphabet. W (for Whittle) is at the end. L has the opportunity to sit in the middle of the bookshelves, W sits at the end, regardless.

On the bottom shelf.

Where you have to crawl on the floor to find it.

This is a shelfie of me with my second book: Trouble and The Missing Cat... note how I am crouched on the floor.

L is at eye-level and is a browse-able choice. W you have to go actively looking for (although I’m sure there is a possibility that I have benefited from being at least a little bit close to David Walliams on the shelf), and, while I’d like to think that people do go looking for my books, they aren’t easy to spot for casual shoppers, and downright difficult for grandparents who do like things at eye-level that don’t require bending and stretching too much, and can see things not hidden in the darkness of the bottom shelf so much better.

I know this because I am a grandparent and I know all about bending and stretching and eyesight issues, and, although I also know that there are many lithe and eagle-eyed older folk out there who are no doubt bristling right now, I also know there are probably more who are nodding in sad agreement.

So what about grandparents, anyway? you might say.

Ah, well. I’m in children’s books, you see, and grandparents are the biggest buyer of children’s books. It is the demography to aim your letters of the alphabet at.

So lesson number one: do not choose a letter at the at the end of the alphabet. Unless, of course, you are David Walliams and everyone knows who you are already. And will look for you.

At the very beginning can be pretty tricky, too. Only tall people can see and reach your books, and this does not generally include actual children – who, on the plus side for me, may be willing to crawl around on the floor of the bookshop looking for their favourite author (hopefully me). This (the beginning of the alphabet thing, not the crawling around on the floor thing) could be solved by the provision of library ladders in bookshops – I would definitely browse using library ladders, because, well, library ladders. Sadly, insurance probably doesn’t cover grey-haired, over-exuberant bibliophiles falling off them.

I couldn't find any pictures of library ladders, so this is an image depicting an imagining of all the adventures library ladders can take you away on!