Writer displays deft touch with the peculiarities of South Sound

When Olympia writer Heather Lockman plunged into her first novel more than four years ago, she made some calculated decisions that paid dividends for her readers.

She drew on her 1990s role helping rescue and restore Olympia’s historic Bigelow House. She leaned on her life as a fourth generation Puget Sounder. Most of all she relied on her keen interest in Pacific Northwest history to script a collision between popular culture and the past in the fictional town of Port Heron, which looks and feels a lot like Olympia.

Maybe it’s self-evident, but writers shine the brightest when they write about the things they know.

The result is an entertaining account of what happens when a historic home in a left-leaning, South Sound college town serves as the backdrop for video and recording sessions starring a fictional Nashville country-western heartthrob.

For the record, Lockman knew next to nothing about country-western music when she started her book project. Two trips to Nashville and an immersion in the music and magazines of the country-western crowd helped remedy that.

The book, titled “The Indian Shirt Story,” also offers an insightful dose of Native American culture, both past and present. My favorite character is a charismatic tribal leader whose words of wisdom, warm embraces and coarse language bear a striking resemblance to Billy Frank Jr., the iconic Nisqually tribal elder and longtime chairman of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission.

Add in some sexual tension, a counterculture protest against fishing, pioneer family history, a touch of tragedy and enough downtown bar and street scenes to keep the reader guessing — Is that Sylvester Park? Is that the Fish Brew Pub? — and the reader’s attention is all but guaranteed.

Lockman’s characters grow out of her experiences living, writing and volunteering in South Sound. But she also allowed her imagination a free rein. “It really does become its own place after a while,” Lockman suggested to me during a writer-centric, rambling conversation Thursday that featured hot spiced cider in the relaxed afternoon atmosphere found at the Batdorf and Bronson coffee shop on Capitol Way in downtown Port Heron, er, Olympia. “I totally invented the places and characters.”

Lockman has spent most of her professional life in the world of nonfiction. She’s been a travel writer for magazines, including “Travel and Leisure” and “National Geographic Traveler.” She’s written for museum exhibits, short documentary films, interpretive signs and historical markers. The 12 interpretive panels that adorn the Deschutes River Canyon trail in Tumwater Falls Park offer a clear, compelling history of Tumwater — the first American settlement near the shores of Puget Sound.

One of her favorite projects was writing the text for the 39 markers — one for each county in the state — anchored along the Capitol Lake shoreline in the state Heritage Park.

“Installed at ankle level, they are just the right height to be read and admired by dogs,” she jests on her website, heatherlockman.com.

Back to her first novel, which Lockman describes as “part love story, part modern satire and part historical saga.”

Lockman found an East Coast literary agent to represent her, but the agent couldn’t get any of the big national publishing houses to print the book.

With some hesitance, Lockman and her agent turned to the world of e-books through Musa Publishing, a digital publishing house.

It took Lockman a while to warm to the fact that her novel would be available only as an e-book. Heck, Lockman and most of her baby boomer friends and would-be readers would rather curl up on the sofa with a book in their hands.

They still can: one at a time. The Timberland Regional Library has a paperback copy of the book to lend to readers.

Otherwise, the novel is available as an e-book from almost all e-book vendors, including Amazon, Barnes & Noble Nook and the Apple Store.

Eight months after the book debuted, the Olympia author seems comfortable with where the novel landed.

“It’s a matter of economics,” she said. “It costs far less to publish digitally, so royalty-paying publishers can take greater chances on authors with small, quirky, regional novels. Like mine.”

I was lucky: I purchased one of just 50 promotional print copies of “The Indian Shirt Story,” after a noon presentation by Lockman at the Coach House at the State Capital Museum. Lockman will be at the Olympia Timberland Regional Library on June 11 at 7:30 p.m. to read from and chat about her book.

John Dodge: 360-754-5444