Writer's Guide to Government Information

Resources to inject real life detail into your fiction

Archive for the tag “geography”

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.


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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