Writer's Guide to Government Information

Resources to inject real life detail into your fiction

Archive for the category “Physical Setting”

Post-World War II Residential Architecture in Maine: A Guide for Surveyors

Post-World War II Residential Architecture in Maine: A Guide for Surveyors – http://www.maine.gov/mhpc/architectural_survey/docs/20100630FINALFINALlower-1.pdf

Representative questions that can be answered with this resource:

  • What is the difference between a raised ranch and a split level?
  • What styles of homes can you find in Bangor Maine?
  • What type of siding is found on Neo-Colonial homes?

Your characters need to live somewhere and often the story will have them coming and going from a residence…but do you know the architectural differences between homes? This guide is a great start to figuring out those differences.  While this particular guide is focused on Maine residences, you can easily find surveys and guides to cities and states around the country.

Here are a few more that may be helpful:

http://www.chesterfield.gov/content2.aspx?id=8590048180&terms=home%20guide – Home Modernization Guide by Chesterfield County of Virginia

http://dnr.alaska.gov/parks/oha/styleguide/styleguide.htm – Architectural style guide by the Alaska Department of Natural Resources Office of History and Archaeology

http://www.thc.texas.gov/public/upload/preserve/survey/survey/architectural%20styles%20residential.pdf – Architectural Styles: Residential by the Texas Historical Commission


Early Psychiatric Hospitals and Asylums

Early Psychiatric Hospitals and Asylums –  https://www.nlm.nih.gov/hmd/diseases/early.html

Representative questions that can be answered with this resource:

  • When did psychiatric hospitals begin in this country?
  • What were some of the arguments for and against physical restraint?
  • What roles did the Quakers play in the history of psychiatric hospitals?


I have toured two of Thomas Kirkbride’s buildings, which were fascinating, and this could come in handy if your story or characters find themselves in a hospital or asylum in the 19th century.  This is just one page of the U.S. National Library of Medicine’s, “Diseases of the Mind: Highlights of American Psychiatry through 1900.” This site also has short biographies of 19th Century psychiatrists, including Kirkbride, as well as other short descriptions of related topics.  The timeline starts in 1752 and goes through 1890 with links to certain buildings and some digitized primary sources.

U.S. Geological Survey Photographic Library

U.S. Geological Survey Photographic Library – https://library.usgs.gov/photo/#/

Representative Questions This Resource Can Answer:

  • What did Mount Saint Helens look like in 1964 and in 1984?
  • What does the landscape look like in Joshua Tree National Park?
  • What did Tokyo look like after its 1923 earthquake?


This photo library contains 30,000 photographs from 1868 to the present. The library can be searched by keyword or by browsing the following topics:

  • Earthquakes
  • Mines, Mills, Quarries
  • Mount St. Helens
  • National Parks
  • Photographers
  • Pioneer Photographers
  • Portrait Collection

Each topic brings up subtopics. The earthquake section is divided up by names of large quakes, such as San Fernando in 1971 or Yemen 1982. The Portraits collection might be useful for seeing clothing styles for the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Aside from being a source to add realistic settings to your stories, this library can be used to illustrate your book, story or website. As stated by the terms of service at https://library.usgs.gov/photo/#/about, all of photos in the USGS library are public domain and be used without permission or credit. USGS would appreciate a credit to the photo library.

National Atlas Geology

UPDATE 10/5/2014 – The National Atlas ceased to be updated as of 9/30/2014. A copy from 9/24/2014 lives on in the Internet Archive. 

National Atlas Geology – https://wayback.archive-it.org/4416/20140919123233/http://nationalatlas.gov/geology.html

Representative Questions This Resource Can Answer:

  • Is there more than one continental divide?
  • Outside of Appalachia, where are America’s coal fields?
  • Where are potentially active volcanoes in California?


The Geology section of the larger National Atlas is a mix of overview articles and of Map Maker samples. Click on on any of the samples in the upper right hand of your screen and then check out the map layers tab. My favorite layer is the “Impact Structures” map which shows the parts of the United States that appear to have been hit from outer space. Another fun layer is the Earthquakes 1568 – 2009 layer. It clearly shows that neither North Dakota nor Iowa has had an earthquake since 1568. If your story takes place there, you might need secret nuclear testing or Godzilla to justify an earthquake.

Other map layers of note include:

  • Coal Fields
  • Continental Divide
  • Earthquakes 1568 – 2009
  • Calderas
  • Generalized Glacial Limits
  • Metamorphic Areas
  • Karst – Engineering Aspects
  • Subsidence
  • Landslides – Costly Events
  • Landslides – Costly Regional Events
  • Landslide Incidence and Susceptibility

There are also maps of magnetic fields available, but I’m honestly not sure how to interpret them or how you might work them into a story.

In the overview articles, pay attention to Continental Divides in North Dakota and North America. This article notes that the “Great Divide” of the Rocky Mountains is only one of several continental divides. One of the continental divides is on very flat ground in North Dakota. For the explanation, see the article.

Search/Use Tip:

Sometimes you can successfully mix layers on Map Maker. Try viewing Landslide incidence and susceptibility, then coal fields and then put them together. Notice how the Appalachian coal fields overlap almost exactly with one of the highest risks of landslides in the country? That sounds like a hard life.

Geoscience Digital Image Library

Geoscience Digital Image Library – http://www.geodil.com/index.asp

Representative Questions This Resource Can Answer:

  • What do dinosaur tracks look like?
  • What does a geologic fault look like from the air?
  • What might a geologist see on a road geology field trip?


This resource is from the University of North Dakota. The site may searched by keyword if you know what you are looking for. Use the browse function if you’re not sure or are looking for ideas.

If you have geological or mineral photos yourself, consider offering them to the Geoscience Digital Image Library. Learn more at their about page.

US Geonames Server / Board of Geographic Names

US Geonames Server / Board of Geographic Names – http://geonames.usgs.gov 

Representative Questions This Resource Can Answer:

  • Is there a [particular feature] in a given state or county?
  • Where is a town called _______?
  • Where is there a dry valley in Antarctica I can drop characters into?


This site coordinates the naming of features both domestically, abroad, Antarctica names and even undersea features. If you’re looking to use real names for your places, this is the best place to go.

The site is divided into the following sections: Domestic Names, Foreign Names, Antarctic Names and Undersea Features.

Clicking on “search” in any of the section takes you to a form where features can be searched by field. For Domestic Names these fields are: Feature name, Feature ID (USGS control number), state, county, feature class (Airport, Arch, cemetery, dam, falls, summit, among many, many others) and Elevation (Between, equals, higher than, lower than (feet or meters).

Records in this database will have a few more fields than listed above, including “history” and description. These fields can vary from a single sentence to a paragraph. For example the history of Devils Paw simply says “Name published in 1908 by U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey (USC&GS) on Chart 8000.” Whereas the History for Tenakee Springs, Alaska says:

“Local name derived from “Tenakee,” the former name of a cannery located 4 miles to the east. Tenakee Springs is a health resort because of the warm springs located here. It has a wharf, store, cafe, crab cannery, (U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey (USC&GS), 1962, p. 145) and a post office, established here in 1903, called “Tenakee,” but the name was changed to Tenakee Springs in April 1928. It was called “Hoonah Hot Springs” by Lieutenant Commander H. E. Nichols, U.S. Navy (USN), in 1891 Coast Pilot (p. 163).”

An individual record also links to a set of mapping services provided as a courtesy as the USGS does not make endorsements.

The “foreign names” section of this site is different enough to break out its description. To access the Foreign names search, be sure to click on the “foreign names” at the top of your screen and not on the left side. This is a fairly complicated search and it is important to click on the plus signs next to possible search criteria. Aside from undersea and vegetation features, this resource appears to lack the reference to natural landmarks that make the domestics name search so compelling.

It will be useful for verifying foreign community names and since the search results link to maps, for locating your foreign communities.

Search Tips and Ideas:

Domestic Names

To give an example of locating numbers of features within a state, look for arches in Utah. A list of 198 named features is generated. The search results display Feature Name, ID, Class, County, State, Latitude, Longitude Ele(ft), Map, BGN Date and Entry Date.

Clicking on any of the column headings sorts by that column. So not only can we tell that there are 198 named arches in Utah, we can also see that the highest arch is Square Arch at 9,432 feet and that there are three arches – Gregory Natural Bridge, LaGorce Arch, and Twilight Arch vying for the lowest arch in Utah at 3,704 feet. All three of these “lowland arches are in Kane County. If we sorted by county, we could then ascertain which county in Utah could claim the most arches.

To answer the question, “Is there an X in State Y”, let’s do a search for arches in Alaska. Turns out that compared to Utah, Alaska is impoverished in arches. Actually when I proposed this search I was pretty certain we didn’t have any. I was wrong. Alaska has two arches. We have Natural Bridge in the Southeast Fairbanks Census Area and Natural Arch in the Valdez Cordova Census Area. So, when you’re not using this to populate your stories with features and a dash of history, you can use the Domestic Names search to settle bar bets.

Antarctic Names

Searching by description can be intriguing if you have an idea of what to look for. I searched “Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition”, the name of a 1957 mapping expedition. That brought up 228 features and the records I checked all seemed to have been named by the Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition.

National Atlas

UPDATE 10/5/2014 – The National Atlas ceased to be updated as of 9/30/2014. A copy from 9/24/2014 lives on in the Internet Archive.

National Atlas – https://wayback.archive-it.org/4416/20140919123029/http://nationalatlas.gov/index.html

Representative questions that this resource can answer:

  • What time zone is Dallas located in?
  • Where can I find a map of Indian reservations?
  • What did the Electoral vote map look like in 1860 for Lincoln’s first election?


The US National Atlas is a set of mapping tools and static maps covering the entire United States and many different topic areas. Some of these topic areas seem so interesting and extensive, that I have given them their own entries, including the sections on Climate  and Geology (discussed elsewhere).

Most people will be satisfied with the printable maps available from the National Atlas, which fall into these areas:

  • Climate Maps
  • Congressional Districts for the 112th Congress
  • Federal Lands and Indian Reservations
  • Presidential Elections 1789 to 2008
  • Reference and Outline Maps of the United States
  • Satellite View Maps
  • Territorial Acquisitions of the United States
  • Time Zones

Climate maps include maps for precipitation of the individual states except Alaska and Hawaii. These maps can show where the arid parts of the states are. If you’ve got a green, green garden in Eastern Washington or an adobe house in the Seattle area, you’ll need to explain how and/or why those things can be.

The Federal Lands and Indian Reservation section is interesting in that you can choose from viewing all federally owned land or limit to specific agencies like the Department of Agriculture, Department of Defense, Department of the Interior, Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Reclamation, Fish and Wildlife Service and National Park Service. Be warned that these maps won’t show you everything. On the federal agency maps, it says that “scale constraints” force the omission of federal properties less than 23,000 acres. According to WolframAlpha, 23,000 acres is about 36 square miles. At the national levels, the Indian lands display suffer from this same handicap.

Fortunately there are state level maps. These say that “small units” are omitted, but you can see the variety of federal and Indian ownership. Have a look at Arizona at https://wayback.archive-it.org/4416/20140919144150/http://nationalatlas.gov/printable/images/pdf/fedlands/AZ.pdf for a good example.

The Presidential Elections maps has four elections per map. Each election gives you the top two candidates and the electoral votes by candidate and by state. It can be helpful in examining the politics of a given era.

The satellite photos are available on a state level, though I don’t think too many writers would find them helpful. Unless you’re writing about an astronaut musing over his home state; or his mistress’.

If you’re not finding what you’re looking for in the printed maps, give MapMaker a try. It provides a number of different “layers” so that you can draw up maps of the rates of forcible rape in Arizona, or amount of cotton harvested in Georgia.


Complete Sun and Moon Data for One Day

Complete Sun and Moon Data for One Day – http://aa.usno.navy.mil/data/docs/RS_OneDay.php

Representative questions this resource can answer:

  • When will the moon rise over Athens, Georgia on July 4th?
  • Is there a full moon over Bourbon Street in New Orleans on November 20th?


This page is searched in the same way as the Sun or Moon Rise/Set Table for One Year page, but the results focus on a single day. If your story refers to a sun or moon event on a specific day, try this out. You can also use dates from the past. Here’s an entry for my late dad’s birthday:


U.S. Naval Observatory

Astronomical Applications Department

Sun and Moon Data for One Day

The following information is provided for Los Angeles, Los Angeles County, California (longitude W118.4, latitude N34.1):

Wednesday 2 August 1933 Pacific Standard Time


Begin civil twilight 4:38 a.m.

Sunrise 5:05 a.m.

Sun transit 12:00 noon

Sunset 6:54 p.m.

End civil twilight 7:21 p.m.



Moonrise 3:36 p.m. on preceding day

Moonset 1:11 a.m.

Moonrise 4:42 p.m.

Moon transit 9:30 p.m.

Moonset 2:20 a.m. on following day

Phase of the Moon on 2 August: waxing gibbous with 88% of the Moon’s visible disk illuminated.

Full Moon on 5 August 1933 at 11:32 a.m. Pacific Standard Time.


Sun or Moon Rise/Set Table for One Year (National Naval Observatory)

Sun or Moon Rise/Set Table for One Year (National Naval Observatory) – http://aa.usno.navy.mil/data/docs/RS_OneYear.php

Representative questions this resource can answer:

  • When does Barrow get midnight sun?
  • How much does daylight vary in Hawaii between December and June?


This is a fairly simple site. There are two online forms. The first is for US locales and can be searched by state and place name. The other is for “Locations Worldwide.” The form for “Locations Worldwide” can only be searched by latitude and longitude. The form does point to a few resources for getting latitude and longitude for non-US cities.

In either case, filling out the form provides a table of sunrise and sunsets for one full year. In addition to providing sunrise and sunset for a year, the “type of table” field allows you generate year long tables for moonrise/moonset, civil twilight, nautical twilight and astronomical twilight. The US Naval Observatory defines these twilight terms as follows:

Civil twilight is defined to begin in the morning, and to end in the evening when the center of the Sun is geometrically 6 degrees below the horizon. This is the limit at which twilight illumination is sufficient, under good weather conditions, for terrestrial objects to be clearly distinguished; at the beginning of morning civil twilight, or end of evening civil twilight, the horizon is clearly defined and the brightest stars are visible under good atmospheric conditions in the absence of moonlight or other illumination. In the morning before the beginning of civil twilight and in the evening after the end of civil twilight, artificial illumination is normally required to carry on ordinary outdoor activities.

Nautical twilight is defined to begin in the morning, and to end in the evening, when the center of the sun is geometrically 12 degrees below the horizon. At the beginning or end of nautical twilight, under good atmospheric conditions and in the absence of other illumination, general outlines of ground objects may be distinguishable, but detailed outdoor operations are not possible. During nautical twilight the illumination level is such that the horizon is still visible even on a Moonless night allowing mariners to take reliable star sights for navigational purposes, hence the name.

Astronomical twilight is defined to begin in the morning, and to end in the evening when the center of the Sun is geometrically 18 degrees below the horizon. Before the beginning of astronomical twilight in the morning and after the end of astronomical twilight in the evening, scattered light from the Sun is less than that from starlight and other natural sources. For a considerable interval after the beginning of morning twilight and before the end of evening twilight, sky illumination is so faint that it is practically imperceptible.

Factchecking Example:

This website was inspired in part by factual errors in the graphic novel turned movie 30 Days of Night. This site can easily illustrate that even the movie’s title is itself a factual error. An error in favor of humanity, but still an error.

Plugging in Barrow Alaska, we see that the sun sets on November 19th at 1:18 pm and rises at 1:05 pm on January 23rd. That’s 65 days of night, not 30.

Try playing with both forms on the site to see if you can find a location where the sun truly sets for 30 days. You can use Wolfram Alpha (http://www.wolframalpha.com) to calculate the number of days between the last sunset and the next sunrise.

Another problem with the movie is that these 65 days of night are not pitch black. If you choose “civil twilight” from the “type of table” field, you’ll see that there is some civil twilight every night between November 19th and January 23rd. On December 21st, the shortest day of the year in some places, there is still three hours of usable civil twilight in Barrow. Perhaps not bright enough to burn vampires, but enough for the townspeople to see them coming.

Leaving this 30 Days of Night fact check behind, this site could be useful for determining when your characters have a chance of seeing things clearly.

National Atlas Climate

UPDATE 10/5/2014 – The National Atlas ceased to be updated as of 9/30/2014. A copy from 9/24/2014 lives on in the Internet Archive.

National Atlas Climate – https://wayback.archive-it.org/4416/20140919123206/http://nationalatlas.gov/climate.html

Representative questions that can be answered with this resource:

  • What is the average rainfall for Los Angeles, California?
  • Where did a major tornado hit in 1955?
  • What was the path of Hurricane ___________?


The Climate section has two main features. The first is a set of articles about climate versus weather, hurricane basics and other materials that might be helpful in a story where weather plays a major role.

Update October 2014: The map layers referred to below are now available for download as compressed shapefiles and must be loaded into Geographic Information System (GIS) software. I’m leaving the description below so that you can see what is potentially available. But it is not nearly as easy to use. 

The second major feature of National Atlas Climate is for its climate specific instance of Map Maker, which can be accessed by clicking on any of the “Map Maker Samples” in the upper right hand corner of the page. Clicking on “Tropical Cyclones – Major Landfalling Atlantic Hurricanes: 1990s” shows you a US map with multiple hurricane tracks on it. Look to the right of the screen to see “map layers”, scroll down until you see “climate” and you will see the following “map layer” options:

  • Average Annual Precipitation 1961-1990
  • Hazard Events 1995-2000: Avalanche, Coastal Drought, Flooding, Fog, Hail, Heat, Hurricane/Tropical Storm, Lightning, Property Damage, Severe Storm/Thunder Storm, Tornado, Tsunami/Seiche, Wildfire, Wind, Winter Weather
  • Sea Surface Temperature 1985-2001
  • Tornadoes 1950-2008: 1950-1954, 1955-1959, 1960-1964, 1965-1969, 1970-1974, 1975-1979, 1980-1984, 1985-1989, 1990-1994, 1995-1999, 2000-2004, 2005-2008
  • Atlantic Tropical Cyclones: 1850s, 1860s, 1870s, 1880s, 1890s, 1900s, 1910s, 1920s, 1930s, 1940s, 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, 2000s
  • Major Landfalling Atlantic Hurricanes: 1850s, 1860s, 1870s, 1880s, 1890s, 1900s, 1910s, 1920s, 1930s, 1940s, 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, 2000s
  • Pacific Tropical Cyclones: 1949, 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, 2000s

The hazards maps and the various storm maps are also good for identifying what will and will not be believable in a particular setting. For example, Pacific hurricanes don’t make sense in Alaska. Wildfires do.

Search tips and story ideas:

To get some idea of story potential, try checking out major landfalling hurricanes in the 1860s to find the category 3 storm that ran through Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama in August 1860. Or try Tornados between 1955-1959 and check out the numerous tornadoes in Louisiana in October/November 1957. Click on the red triangles to see the date of the tornado along with numbers of people injured and or killed. Turn on the layers for cities and counties and you’ll get a clear idea of where these tragedies happened.

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