Writer's Guide to Government Information

Resources to inject real life detail into your fiction

About This Site

This web site began as a NaNoWriMo manuscript in 2011. After two years of on and off editing, I have decided that the content of my manuscript would be more useful as a web site. I never intended to get rich from my book, I just want to encourage other people to be as excited about government information as I am. I want people to use the information collected and produced at their expense.

To explain why people can use government information in their fiction and how this body of work came to be, here is the introduction to the original manuscript which had been titled “There are no Trees in Barrow”:

Introduction

This book has two sources of inspiration – 30 Days of Night and the 2010 NANO Reference Desk board on nanowrimo.org. The first was a negative inspiration and the second a positive one.

30 Days of Night started out life as a graphic novel and became a movie. It is set in Barrow, Alaska. According to the story, a group of vampires sees Barrow as the perfect vampire vacation spot because it is far enough north that the sun sets during winter and doesn’t rise for 30 days. When people become aware of the danger they face, they hide out in the forest.

As the title of this book implies, there are no living trees in Barrow. This is a fact that could have been ascertained in a number of ways:

While it’s also true that Barrow has more than 30 days of night, 65 to be exact, I’ve seen at least one interview where the writers acknowledged this fact. They just figured that after 65 days of night, the humans would have had no chance. I’m not entirely humorless, so I can accept that bit of poetic license. Though it might have been better to invent a town at the proper latitude.

That was the “How could they do that!” inspiration. The other source of inspiration came from the NaNoWriMo Reference Desk board. I dipped into the board from time to time during 2010, seeing questions like:

  • Can someone get knocked over the head, lose consciousness for three days and wake up with no real ill effects?
  • How much does an Emergency Medical Technician earn and what kind of training would she need?
  • What’s the standard way to process a crime scene?
  • What’s a really rare disease I could give to a character?

As I answered questions, I realized that I could pull many of the answers from government documents or websites. Government information is a passion of mine and so I saw the potential to share my enthusiasm with a group of people who might write about it.

 

WHAT DO YOU MEAN BY GOVERNMENT INFORMATION?

For the purpose of this book, government information is either information directly published by a local, state/provincial, national, or international government agency OR any information indexed by a government agency.

An example of the first type would be “National Intelligence – A Consumer’s Guide” published by the Directorate of National Intelligence and available at http://www.fas.org/irp/dni/consumer.pdf. This publication describes the nation’s dozen or so intelligence agencies in plain English for the benefit of policy makers.

An example of the second type would be the article “Memories aren’t made of this: Amnesia at the movies.” This article was originally published in the British Medical Journal, which is not a government journal. However, it was indexed in Medline, a government database, so we include it as government information.

This book will be highly focused on material produced by US government agencies although the scope of this material is worldwide (i.e. Library of Congress Country Studies) and beyond (NASA). Some coverage of Canada and the UK is also available.

 

WHY SHOULD I USE GOVERNMENT INFORMATION?

If you are an American writer, the number one reason you should use government information is because you’ve paid for it already with your tax dollars. Local, state/provincial and federal governments in North America collect information on a huge range of subjects and much of it has been made freely available either on the web or in paper. Much of this information is considered valuable or interesting enough that private vendors try to sell them to people. For US federal documents this is mostly legal as much of US federal documents are public domain. But after looking through this book, you won’t have to pay.

Another reason to use government information is that with some exceptions in controversial fields, government documents are fairly balanced and reasonably comprehensive. They’ve been written by subject experts from within and without government agencies. In some cases, like NASA or some aspects of military history, government publications are going to be the best resources.

 

PEOPLE TELL ME, “DON’T YOU KNOW THAT NOT EVERYTHING GOVERNMENTS SAY CAN BE TRUSTED?”

I freely admit that on very politically charged issues, a government document might not be the most trustworthy resource. Many times, subjects are uncontroversial (i.e. average earnings of an EMT or a meatpacker). If you have reason to think a resource might be skewed, treat it like Wikipedia. If the document has references, check those out. Use the terms and vocabulary you find in the government document to find alternative resources.

From here, you should either go to the Table of Contents and browse the resources, or try using either the search box in the upper right corner of every page or browsing my tag cloud. If you don’t find what you’re looking for and you’re willing to have a public reply, contact me. If I have time, I’ll look into your question and post the answer in a blog post.

5 thoughts on “About This Site

  1. Pingback: Sun or Moon Rise/Set Table for One Year (National Naval Observatory) | Writer's Guide to Government Information

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  3. Pingback: Writer’s Guide to Gov Info: Weekly Update 12/29/2013 | Librarian From Alaska

  4. Pingback: Writer’s Guide to Gov Info: Weekly Update 12/29/2013 | Eclectic Alaskan

  5. Pingback: Writer’s Guide: All Resources Have Been Posted | Writer's Guide to Government Information

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