I have noticed that many writers have said they keep lists of interesting names for future use. I liked the idea and I stole it. I now have a short list of distinctive names that I can reference, if needed, when I need a special name.
There are many places people gather names from: Obituaries, birth announcements, names overheard in passing. I think that obituaries are best for surnames and names “of a certain age”. Birth announcements and names overheard in passing are best for current trends in what sounds good. For example, I have been working with student applications and have gathered several interesting names from them (Mollibeth, anyone?).
While many writers (myself now included) are creating lists of names, there is another source of names: Relevant lists online. What are relevant lists? You may recall that in this week’s Character of the Week I used a list of Star Trek spaceship names to help me glean a list of “technic” names. For other characters that I named I used lists of names by meaning (“wolf” names for werewolves), by origin (mythology), or by career (pirates’ names).
What kind of story are you working on? If you’re writing a fantasy novel set in an era that is like the renaissance in, let’s say, Italy, try searching for “Italian renaissance names”. What career does your character have? If your character is a scientist, you could look up a list of famous scientists from a related field and use one of their surnames. When was your character born? If your character was born in 1920, you could name him after an actor, a baseball player, or a politician from that time (just look up that year on Wikipedia and see what was happening).
As you research your story you can take note of interesting names that could have meaning to your readers. Or, think of some aspect of your story or character that could lead you to a list full of interesting and timely names for your characters. I know I’m definitely going to use that list of Italian renaissance names when I get around to the relevant novel!