Writer's Guide to Government Information

Resources to inject real life detail into your fiction

Archive for the tag “culture”

Handbook of the North American Indians (Smithsonian Institution)

Handbook of the North American Indians (Smithsonian Institution)
(Find in a Library – http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/13240086)

Representative questions that can be answered with this resource:

  • Where can I learn more about Salish ceremonies?
  • What are some characteristics of the Indian Shaker Church?
  • What are some traditional aspects for the Hopi World View?
  • What are some Native American writing systems and when did they arise?
  • What vowels exist in Seneca, an Iroquoian language?


From the Smithsonian description of the series:

An encyclopedia summarizing knowledge about all Native peoples north of Mesoamerica, including cultures, languages, history, prehistory, and human biology, is a standard reference work for anthropologists, historians, students, and the general reader. Leading authorities have contributed chapters to each volume. Area volumes include separate chapters on all tribes. This heavily illustrated work contains extensive bibliographies and is well indexed. Each volume may be purchased and used independently.

This print only set consists of 16 volumes (curiously numbered from 2-17) published over a period of decades:


  • v. 2:   Indians in Contemporary Society
  • v. 3:   Environment, Origins, and Population
  • v. 4:   History of Indian-White Relations
  • v. 5:   Arctic
  • v. 6:   Subarctic
  • v. 7:   Northwest Coast
  • v. 8:   California
  • v. 9:   Southwest
  • v. 10:  Southwest
  • v. 11:  Great Basin
  • v. 12:  Plateau
  • v. 13:  Plains
  • v. 14:  Southeast
  • v. 15:  Northeast
  • v. 17:  Languages

The volumes relating to tribes can usually be counted on having these extra features in addition to narrative essays:

  • Key to tribal territories
  • Technical alphabet
  • English pronunciations
  • Conventions for illustrations
  • Preface – contains information about how information in volume was compiled.



Cultural Orientations from the Defense Language Institute (DLI)

Cultural Orientations from the Defense Language Institute (DLI) – http://famdliflc.lingnet.org/productList.aspx?v=co

Representative questions that can be answered with this resource:

  • What are home customs like in Nigeria?
  • What are some traditions in Algeria?
  • What is family life like in China?
  • What does Dari sound like?


This set of online training modules from the US military try to familiarize personnel with cultural conditions on the ground. From the website:

“The Cultural Orientations (CO) offer an engaging introduction to a given cultural group. Linguists and non-linguists alike will benefit from these interactive materials and pertinent language exchanges that are coupled with an objective and practical look at daily life in different contexts. Topics include religion, traditions, family life and differences in the lifestyles of urban and rural populations.”

There are literally dozens of cultural orientations available, based more around language and ethnic groups than around countries. The number of “slides” presented varies, but all modules have the structure of Country profile, Religion, Traditions, Urban Life, Rural Life, Family Life, Assessment and Resources (for further reading and study). In addition to the “Assessment” tab at the end of each orientation, there are smaller assessments at the end of each section. Country profiles are provided with the understanding that most ethnic groups tend to have one country where most of them live.

Most of the cultural orientations have an interactive activity under the “geography” portion of the country profile tab. You’re given the name of the continent (i.e. Africa) where the country under discussion is found and asked to click on that continent. Then you’re given the region of the continent that the country is found (i.e. East Africa) and asked to click on that. Then comes the final and most humbling task of all – you’re given an unlabeled outline map of the region and a group of flags with the country names on them. Your task is to place each flag into its proper country. This was relatively easy for me for the Balkans and much, much trial and error with East Africa. By the time you’re done, you will know what borders the target country.

Many parts of the orientation feature short dialogs. It won’t teach you the languages of the given ethnic, but will be helpful in learning how a language sounds.

Some of the orientations offered are:

  • Algerian Cultural Orientation (Feb 2011)
  • Amharic [Ethiopia] Cultural Orientation (Apr 2011)
  • Dari [Afghanistan] Cultural Orientation (Nov 2008)
  • Hausa [Nigeria] Cultural Orientation (Jul 2007)
  • North Korean Cultural Orientation (May 2009)
  • Saudi Cultural Orientation (Nov 2007)
  • Wu [China] Cultural Orientation (Aug 2008)

These orientations will be helpful in framing stories in foreign countries and may be helpful in setting character beliefs and traditions.


An American Ballroom Companion: Dance Instruction Manuals, ca. 1490-1920

An American Ballroom Companion: Dance Instruction Manuals, ca. 1490-1920 – http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/dihtml/dihome.html

Representative questions that can be answered with this resource:

  • What were some dances in England during the 1710s?
  • How and when did Irish dance start in New York City?
  • What were the expectations of a 19th Century lady asked to sing or play the piano?


From the website,

“Dance manuals can tell us important things about how people lived in past eras. For example, the illustrations and, later, photographs not only illuminate how people dressed, but demonstrate body carriage. These books highlight the importance of knowing the most fashionable dances and detail grand balls, private gatherings, and other social events that included dance, thus describing the importance of dance (or lack of) in any particular era, as well as how to appropriately spend leisure time. In addition, each era has codified rules of etiquette, specific gender roles, as well as codes regarding acceptable behavior toward one’s partner while dancing. Dance manuals are an excellent source for this type of information. And, of course, the manuals detail the steps and dances–in many cases, dances that were popular before the advent of photographs or film. Many manuals also contain music to accompany the dances. All of this information is helpful to anybody who wishes to recreate (often called “reconstruct”) dances of the past or to better understand the evolution of popular social dance.”

Background Notes (State Department)

Background Notes (State Department) –http://www.state.gov/r/pa/ei/bgn/

Representative questions that can be answered with this resource:

  • What does the flag of Andorra look like?
  • When did Hungary join NATO?
  • What ethnic groups exist in Pakistan?
  • What are some events in the effort to reunify North and South Korea?



Background Notes are the Cliff notes version of a country. The advantages to Background Notes are that they are up to date and available not only for every recognized sovereign country, but also for some dependencies and areas of special sovereignty.

Each Background note contains the following:

  • National Flag
  • Official Name
  • Map
  • Statistical Profile (including life expectancy and ethnic groups)
  • Geography
  • People
  • History
  • Government
  • Political Conditions
  • Economy
  • Defense
  • Foreign Relations
  • U.S. Relations
  • Travel/Business

The government section lists the current top officials in a given country and the US Relations section lists the current US Ambassador and key embassy staff.

Search Tips:

The use of the “inurl” with Google and other search engines can help you locate real-world countries that fit desired conditions. A few examples:

  • Need a country with a monarch as head of state? Use “Executive–monarch” inurl::/r/pa/ei/bgn/
  • A country with an authoritarian past or present? Use authoritarian inurl::/r/pa/ei/bgn/
  • Need to know what countries have “Islamic Republic” in their names? Use “islamic republic” inurl:/r/pa/ei/bgn/


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