Writer's Guide to Government Information

Resources to inject real life detail into your fiction

Archive for the tag “history”

Untangling My History Resources or Everything isn’t Military

Awhile back I noticed a browsing problem here on Writer’s Guide to Government Information. I realized that if one browsed by Century, that person was going to see screens and screens of material related to military history before running across anything remotely civilian. So I’ve now created separate century tags for military resources. So if you’ve tried to browse for general history resources by century before, please have another look at:


But if you were happy with seeing military resources by century as opposed to service or war, you can now browse by:


I’m always happy to take suggestions on how to make this guide more useful to writers. Just use the contact form or leave a comment here.


What was considered typical care during the Civil War?

In my entry for Office of Medical History (Army), I claim this resource can be used to answer the question, “What was considered typical care during the Civil War?” Here’s how:

  1. Visit the Office of Medical History (Army), then choose Books and Documents.
  2. Then either choose The Army Medical Department 1818-1865 or one of the shorter documents from the Civil War.
  3. If you go with the Army Medical Department 1818-1865, have a look at Chapters 8-13. You’ll find a number of aspects of army medicine during the Civil War, including this sad bit about hospital conditions around 1862:

Hammond often visited proposed hospital sites to make sure that those chosen were healthy, but by the end of 1862 the Union Army’s 150 general hospitals, scattered about the North and West and in some areas of the South and staffed largely by contract surgeons, were not achieving the record for healthfulness that had been hoped for. Although 400 stewards, 300 wardmasters, 6,051 male and female nurses, 3,025 laundresses, and 2,017 cooks served in general hospitals, many of these institutions were still filthy. Dirt, soiled dressings, and old clothing might be under the beds in wards that seemed clean. Bathrooms and tubs sometimes served as temporary repositories for “every uncleansed or unemptied chamber vessel, of soiled and offensive linen, and of every slop that a lazy nurse does not care to move.” Laundries, kitchens, and mess rooms might be in a similar state, and hospital grounds could be littered with refuse and privies. Ventilation was likely to be deficient despite Hammond’s efforts, principally because architects valued warmth above fresh air.

My entry on the Office of Medical History (Army) is just one resource that covers the 19th Century in the Writer’s Guide to Government Information.

Women’s History Month Resources

March is Women’s History Month in the United States. The Writer’s Guide to Government Information can help you celebrate this month with what might be some non-traditional resources including:

Some different resources for African-American History Month

If you’re looking to find different resources for African-American History Month, check out my posts tagged African-Americans. A few of the resources you’ll find include:

If you found these resources useful and know a writer, please tell them about the Writer’s Guide to Government Information.

CIA Studies in Intelligence

CIA Studies in Intelligence  – https://www.cia.gov/library/center-for-the-study-of-intelligence/csi-publications/csi-studies/index.html

Representative questions that can be answered with this resource:

  • Where can I learn about Soviet defectors from Gorbachev’s Russia?
  • Where I can learn more about the Chinese intelligence services?
  • What did Ernest Hemmingway do for American intelligence during World War II?
  • How do CIA staff go about determining a state’s instability?


Declassifed articles on a wide range of current and historical intelligence topics. Articles from 2011 included:

  • The Evolution of US Army HUMINT: Intelligence Operations in the Korean War by John P. Finnegan
  • Cultural Topography: A New Research Tool for Intelligence Analysis by Jeannie Johnson and Matthew Berrett
  • What I Learned in 40 Years of Doing Intelligence Analysis for US Foreign Policymakers by Martin Petersen

May be useful in building characters or back story. According to the CIA page on copyright, you ought to be able to use quotes from the articles without copyright worries:

Unless a copyright is indicated, information on the Central Intelligence Agency Web site is in the public domain and may be reproduced, published or otherwise used without the Central Intelligence Agency’s permission. We request only that the Central Intelligence Agency be cited as the source of the information and that any photo credits or bylines be similarly credited to the photographer or author or Central Intelligence Agency, as appropriate.

If a copyright is indicated on a photo, graphic, or any other material, permission to copy these materials must be obtained from the original source.

Some of Mr. Petersen’s material sounded like it could be useful in the mouth of a veteran intelligence operative explaining the facts of life to a new colleague.

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.


Chronicling America (1836-1922)

Chronicling America (1836-1922) – http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov

Representative questions that can be answered with this resource:

  • What were some headlines from a 100 years ago?
  • Where can I read contemporary accounts of the overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawaii?
  • When did Houdini make a movie of some of his magic tricks?


This site has digitized newspapers for 25 states and the District of Columbia covering the period from 1836 to 1922. The end year is the last year that newspapers were part of the Public Domain. Anything past 1922 is still under copyright and much harder to legally make available. As of this writing, works including newspapers dated 1923 should come into the Public Domain on 1/1/2019.

The site may be searched by keyword, browsed by state, ethnicity, language or recommended topic. Results are shown as images which can be enlarged and moved around. Pages may be downloaded as PDF or text. In the few samples I checked, the text was not formatted well. You are better off with the PDF if you download material.

The recommended topics include a brief introduction, a timeline and links to selected articles. They could also serve as story starters.

Library of Congress Country Studies

Library of Congress Country Studies – http://memory.loc.gov/frd/cs/cshome.html

Representative questions that can be answered with this resource:

  • What are some distinctive social institutions in Israel?
  • Who is the Commander in Chief of Iran’s armed forces (hint – Not the President)?
  • What do herders and other pastoral nomads in Mongolia do?
  • What are some bloody periods of Columbian history prior to the drug wars?


This is a premier place to go if you are looking for an in-depth overview of a particular country. These Country Studies and a small number of Area Handbooks were produced between 1988 and 1998 by the Library of Congress’ Federal Research Division under contract to the US Army. They focused on lesser known parts of the world or places the Army anticipated deployments in. There are currently 101 countries and regions available through this series. A few notable countries with profiles are: Afghanistan, Austria, Columbia, India, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Romania, South Africa, Uganda and Vietnam.

In a few cases, such as Iran (2008) and Columbia (2010), an updated Country Study was made. The Federal Research Division plans to update other countries as funding becomes available. Apparently, one of the effects of a smaller government is having less detailed information on potential troublespots. What could go wrong?

For the most part, writers will find the age of the series less of a handicap as they are usually looking for a basic background, which doesn’t change or setting their stories in an earlier era, which the books can easily accommodate.

Each Country Study is divided into the following chapters: Historical setting, Society and Its Environment, Economy, Government and Politics, National Security. Appendices include political parties and organizations. The Country Studies are heavily footnoted and usually include extensive bibliographies. In the Country Studies I’m the most familiar with (Columbia and Iran), information is provided in a balanced manner. If you’re doubtful of a given Country Study’s objectivity, use the bibliography as an exploration point.

This is a resource that you can quote in your books or draw photos from. As stated in the FAQ section of the website, “With the exception of some photographs, which are clearly marked in the photograph’s caption, text and graphics contained in the online Country Studies are not copyrighted. They are considered to be in the public domain and thus available for free and unrestricted use. As a courtesy, however, we ask that appropriate credit be given to the series. If you or your publisher require specific written permission for the record, queries should be directed via e-mail to frds@loc.gov.”

Search Tips/Story ideas:

Like the Background Notes above, the Country Studies can be mined with Google for specific topics of interest before you have decided on a country to set your story in. Two examples are:

slavery inurl:frd/cstdy
civil war inurl:frd/cstdy

For some reason, Google initially returns a single result, along with the message, “In order to show you the most relevant results, we have omitted some entries very similar to the 1 already displayed. If you like, you can repeat the search with the omitted results included.” Accepting Google’s offer will provide a larger list of different results.

Some Country Studies could be used to design stories set in the near future. For example, the Political Dynamics section of the Columbia Country study documents how party membership turned into armed factional fighting:

Since the mid-nineteenth century, the most consistent features of Colombia’s political system have been the elitism and dualism of party politics. Elites from the Liberal Party (Partido Liberal–PL) and the Conservative Party (Partido Conservador–PC), which in 1987 changed its name to the Social Conservative Party (Partido Social Conservador–PSC), have dominated the nation’s political institutions. Consequently, the majority of Colombians had little input in the political process and decision making. The formation of the life-long party loyalties and enmities of most Colombians traditionally began at an early age. Campesinos adopted the party affiliations of their master or patron (patrón). Being a Liberal or a Conservative was part of one’s family heritage and everyday existence. During the period of la violencia, party membership was sufficient reason to kill or be killed. Families, communities, and regions have identified with one or the other party. The PL traditionally dominated, the main exception being the period of Conservative hegemony from 1886 to 1930. For most of the twentieth century, the Conservatives have been able to gain power only when the Liberal vote was split.

The Columbia Country Study describes La Violencia this way:

La violencia claimed over 200,000 lives during the next eighteen years, with the bloodiest period occurring between 1948 and 1958. La violencia spread throughout the country, especially in the Andes and the llanos (plains), sparing only the southernmost portion of Nariño and parts of the Caribbean coastal area. An extremely complex phenomenon, la violencia was characterized by both partisan political rivalry and sheer rural banditry. The basic cause of this protracted period of internal disorder, however, was the refusal of successive governments to accede to the people’s demands for socioeconomic change.

If Republicans and Democrats took up arms in this country, what might the result be? Something like La Violencia?

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