It sounds like one of the most obvious aspects of writing historical fiction but as I began a Victorian project last night I decided I needed to be very careful with my opening action: naming my characters.
After all, there would be nothing more embarrassing than to submit a manuscript and for someone to kindly point out that the name you've deliberately selected didn't exist until forty years after your novel ends. That's assuming it gets picked up at that point. Depending on how you go about publishing it could be your readers detecting your error and instantly losing faith in your ability.
I've previously blogged about choosing meaningful names for characters. When planning and writing historical fiction you have to add another aspect to this: legitimacy. For my particular era, there are interesting names out there which draw away from the Catherines, Elizabeths and Janes who are so prevalent in Victorian fiction and history. I could have Lena as my heroine, or perhaps Honora. As it happens, I'd already determined my protagonist should be as plain as possible - so I've named her Jane.
The entire supporting cast needed equal consideration though, and surnames are a additional problem. If you intend on shortening a name within the story ensure the contraction was used in the era you're writing about. Don't assume that just because you've read or seen something which uses a particular name that the name was common back then. It all depends on how much you want to accentuate your characters. Adding a somewhat exotic name can have the effect of distancing your story from the period in which it is set. If that's your intention that's fine but make sure it is.
Finally, I would just add a word of caution: always verify your names from more than one source. This isn't to suggest that any particular sites are unreliable or incorrect, but as with any aspect of your research you should be sure to avoid embarrassment or inaccuracy further down the line.
A couple of sites I'd recommend for research are:
Behind The Name
Baby Names Garden
Alternative Baby Names
As for my assembled cast? I've deliberately stayed relatively plain.
Jane, Eliza, Ralph, Amelia, Harry, Henry, Mrs Weeks, Margaret, Patrick and Sarah. Subject, of course, to change!