As journalists know, the questions a story should answer are who, what, where, when and why.
For journalist-turned-novelist Jim Lynch, “where” is as at least as important as who or why.
“My fiction starts with setting,” said Lynch of Olympia, whose second novel, “Border Songs,” will be released Tuesday. “In a lot of novels, setting is kind of irrelevant. They’re about human realities and human interaction, and the setting could be anywhere.
“For me, setting – especially a setting that’s this powerful – is a tool I want to utilize.”
Lynch’s first novel, 2005’s best-selling “The Highest Tide,” was set – like the author’s home – along the water in Olympia. “Border Songs” is set in Blaine, along the Canadian border.
The author grew up near Seattle, and though his journalistic career took him across the country and back, the Northwest is his place.
“It’s ridiculously green and wet and alive and so lush,” he said. “If I’m setting fiction in this part of the world, it would be a shame to leave out how dazzling the setting is, nature-wise.”
The natural world is a huge part of both “Border Songs,” which features Brandon, a dyslexic/autistic young Border Patrol agent with an uncanny connection to birds and cows, and “The Highest Tide,” about a 13-year-old boy with an uncanny connection to marine life.
Like his protagonists, Lynch also is a keen observer of nature, said Gary Fisketjon, who edited “Border Songs” for Alfred A. Knopf and who has made a name for himself working with such authors as Raymond Carver and Cormac McCarthy.
“He writes so beautifully about the Northwest and knows it so intimately,” said Fisketjon, who grew up near Salem, Ore. “It’s the specificity of his writing. You read descriptions of things that you’ve seen before but not quite as clearly as he’s describing them.
“That’s kind of what Brandon’s able to do, too.”
But in “Border Songs,” the setting is cultural and political as well as natural.
The book includes two countries (separated only by a ditch), but its characters – an unlucky dairy farmer, drug smugglers and a masseuse who lives for gossip, in addition to protagonist Brandon – inhabit a multitude of worlds.
Lynch lives in the world of “The Highest Tide,” but he had to use travel, research and many interviews to get that same insider’s view of Blaine, the Border Patrol, bird-watching and dairy farming.
“They always tell you to write what you know,” he said, “but since I was a reporter for so long, I feel comfortable writing about just about anything that I spend enough time researching.”
He first visited Blaine while working for The Oregonian, Portland’s daily newspaper, and covering marijuana smuggling and later the tripling of security on the border after Sept. 11, 2001.
“Everything was getting more intense, and yet what they were really catching was far more marijuana instead of terrorists,” he said. “It started to seem like a good setting for fiction: It’s a really unusual place where we were waging war on terror and drugs in this very rural setting.”
There is a bit of Olympia in the book’s Blaine, but it’s not a piece many people will recognize: It’s the family farm owned by Norm, Brandon’s father.
Norm, who dreams of the nautical life, was inspired by one of Lynch’s neighbors. “I hung out with a guy who has a dairy farm in the valley below us,” he said. “I would hang out for hours and hours.”
Surely Olympia is worth more than one book, though?
“I would love to set another novel in Olympia,” Lynch said. “When I travel to other places to do readings of ‘The Highest Tide,’ people are curious: ‘Does this city exist?’ ‘Did you describe it accurately?’ ‘Is there really a cult nearby?’
“I explain that it’s mostly all true,” he added. “Olympia is a wonderfully quirky, beautiful place to set fiction.”
That said, though, Lynch is looking north again for his next book.
“Seattle is the next novel,” he said. “It’s going to be a very urban novel. The last half of a year, I’ve spent a lot of time up in Seattle and researching both the present and the history of it.
“I’m just in the beginning stages of starting to write it.”