Finding Your Stories: The Name Game

One of the strategies I have found helpful is to play the "name game." In other words, try to list and track as many variations on your subjects' names as you can. If you maintain and consult that list, you may find it easier to focus in on the search results you want.

For details and suggestions, listen to this episode of How to Find Estelle, grab a copy of the name game worksheet, or consult the transcript below.

The Name Game (Transcript)

[00:00:01] Narrator: Estelle True-Nell was a remarkable woman. Our modern era has forgotten her, and I think that's too bad.

[00:00:12] I'd like to introduce you to her amazing life, one career at a time. Along the way, we might pick up a tip or two for ourselves, as we learn How to Be Estelle.

[00:00:25] I have had tremendous fun tracking down Estelle and her family. In this episode, we'll focus on How to Find Estelle (or in your case, how to find the people, places, and topics that interest you). One strategy that has really helped me is playing "The Name Game."

[00:00:45] In her lifetime, Estelle went by many different names, so I've started keeping a centralized list of all the different aliases, abbreviations, and spellings I have encountered. That way, when I'm exploring a new resource or creating a search alert, I have an easy way to remember all the different potential search terms to use.

How to track your Name Game list

[00:01:01] I like to use a spreadsheet to collect names and dates, because it's easy to sort and easy for me to access. You could do the same thing with a document on your computer or even set up a page or two in a paper notebook if that's more your style. The point is to collect your search terms in one place and keep adding to that list as you find new variations.

How to get started

[00:01:22] I recommend scheduling an initial brainstorming session to collect what you already know about your subjects. Set a timer for about 10-15 minutes and sit down with a notepad or whatever tool you're planning to use to store your list. List as many variations on your subject's name as you can.

What to consider when listing names

Here are some things to think about:


[00:01:40 ] Capture variations in spelling. For example, Estelle's birth name was Zuilia Trunnell. Her first name was sometimes spelled with a "Zu" and sometimes with a "Zui." Her last name was sometimes listed with one "N" and sometimes with two, and sometimes Trunell ends in "elle." Consider different phonetic spellings, too. Estelle used "True-Nell" as her chosen last name later in life.

[00:02:05] We know newspaper reporters and census takers sometimes made their best guesses when spelling names, and that means our "correct" spelling might not appear in a search. Keeping a log of all those different creative spellings might help you track the clues you need to find your next breakthrough.


[00:02:23] Consider nicknames. Was Lucas also known as Luke? Was William known as Billy? The local newspaper might be likely to refer to someone by their more commonly known nickname.

Name Order

[00:02:34] Consider middle names and their variations and try switching the order of names when you search. Estelle's daughter Pearl was sometimes listed as Pearl Ethel and sometimes as Ethel Pearl.


[00:02:45] Consider any titles the person may have used. Harry Maurice Smyth claimed to have been a Captain in the British Army, so I might look for Capt. Smyth, too. Aviator William M. Evans was sometimes advertised as Professor or Captain Evans. I'm going to try those titles spelled out and abbreviated.

[00:03:04] Sometimes the community might award your person a different title. The Skidmore newspaper often referred to respected older adults in the community as "Uncle" Henry or "Aunt" Sarah. Knowing that might help you catch additional mentions of a family member.

Married and Maiden Names

[00:03:18] Don't forget to look for married women under their husbands' names. The Skidmore paper typically referred to a married woman with her husband's name while they were married, but once she divorced or became a widow, the paper often used her first and last names. So, Mrs. E. T. Duval might later be referred to as Anna Duval. Depending on the timeframe, I'll search for all those variations.

Initials and Abbreviations

[00:03:40] Consider initials and abbreviations. 19th and 20th century documents, reference books, and newspaper accounts often used those. So, if I'm looking for Charles Young in a city directory or newspaper database, I'm also looking for C. L. and Chas. Young. You'll find lists of common first name abbreviations online. It's worth trying them just to see what you find.

List What Works (and What Doesn't).

[00:04:03] Keep a list of what's "in" and what's "out." As I've searched for Charles, I've learned to recognize cases where the same name is not the same person. For example, Sir Charles L. Young was a famous British playwright in the 1800s, and his name often comes up when I'm searching for MY Charles in the theater. I know that if a source mentions "Sir" Charles, or if the name appears with the play Jim the Penman, it's not my Charles. Sometimes having a list of what not to pursue can be helpful. I also note any connections with specific places. The Charles L. Young connected to a children's home in Ohio is not my Charles, but the one in Atlantic City very well might be the one I'm seeking.

Community and Organization Names

[00:04:43] Consider capturing the names of groups, companies, and organizations connected to your subjects. For example, one of my ancestors was part of the I O O F, the Independent Order of Odd Fellows. If you are searching for someone who was part of the local Masonic Lodge or another group, note the group's name and their local chapter name and number, as well as any related abbreviations. The same goes for military units, school groups, companies, and local political parties. You might learn something about your subject by finding out what their social and professional groups were up to, even if they're not named personally.

Keep Up-to-Date

[00:05:18] Finally, keep updating your list as you search. When you find new variations, make a note of them. I'd also suggest making a note about where you saw each variation. It might help to observe that your subject went by a particular name in one place or during one time period and later was known by a different combination.

[00:05:37] I hope these tips will inspire you to start or update your own list of names, and I hope you'll share your own Name Game tips with me, too.

[00:05:45] Good luck with your research and join me next time as we learn How to Be Estelle.