Monday, July 27, 2015

Stranger than Fiction: a guest post by Susan Spann, author of the Shinobi Mysteries

Happy Monday!  Susan Spann, author of the Shinobi mysteries, is here today with a post about her recent visit to Japan and the unexpected surprises that happen during the research process.


Stranger than Fiction
Susan Spann

I set my Shinobi Mysteries in 16th century Japan because I love to travel in the pages of the books I read, and that goes doubly for the ones I write. Each book transports me to another place and time, and lets me “see” a host of strange and exotic things.

Research is an important part of writing historical novels. (Any novels, really. Both the devil and the bad reviews are mostly in the details…) Since my mysteries take place in a time and place that no longer exist, most of my research happens on the pages of a book. Sometimes, however, it’s possible to visit the places I write about, and on the truly special occasions, the truth proves even stranger than my fiction.

Last month I traveled to Japan for a research trip. I spent the second day at Fushimi Inari Taisha, the most important of the Shinto shrines dedicated to Inari Okami, god of foxes, rice, tea, fertility, swordsmiths, merchants, and good fortune. (Inari gets around.)

Fushimi Inari lies on Mount Inari, just south of Kyoto. Thousands of red, sacred torii gates line the path that leads to the top of the mountain. The torii symbolize passing from a worldly space to a sacred one, and Fushimi Inari is famous for the number and size of its gates. In some places, they even form a tunnel.

Many visitors don’t make the three-hour climb to the top of the mountain, but I’m featuring the shrine in an upcoming novel, so up I went. About halfway to the top, I noticed a sign and an earthen path leading off into the trees. Of course, I followed…

…and ended up at an ancient sub-shrine dedicated not to Inari, but to the guardian dragons of Japan:

I’ve always loved dragons, and knew they featured in Japanese mythology. In fact, that upcoming book I mentioned involves not only Fushimi Inari, but also dragon mythology.

And when I wrote it…I had no idea a dragon sub-shrine existed on Mount Inari.

Yet there it was. The dragons were waiting exactly where I needed them for the novel I’m preparing to write.

One of the most amazing parts of writing involves the “miraculous” facts that show up where you need them and often, when you least expect them. For example, a character needs a certain type of weapon or tool, and—to my surprise—the research supports the plot point. As an author, I normally establish a basic plot and then do most of the research before I write.

The order of operations helps me ensure I don’t put something…like a dragon shrine…into a book where it doesn’t belong. That’s particularly important in the historical context, and when the author is writing stories set in a “real” time and place. I take the history seriously, and I’ve changed subplots and story points if the history won’t support them. For example, my first Shinobi Mystery, Claws of the Cat, involved the murder of a retired samurai general in a teahouse. The female entertainers who worked in those teahouses are now called “geisha,” but that word did not exist in the 16th century, when my books are set. Instead, I used the historically accurate word, “entertainer,” which is what the women now called “geishas” were called in 1564. The change cost me a little in terms of rapid recognition for my characters, but accuracy is worth the extra effort.

One of my goals for this trip to Japan was learning whether the dragon mythology mingled with the Shinto shrines in a way that would work for my upcoming subplot. But never in my wildest dreams did I expect to find a dragon shrine on the very mountain where that book takes place.

It’s not the first time research has uncovered a startling surprise that helped my work—but I have to admit, Inari did me a favor this time around.

Have you ever had a pleasant surprise arise in the course of your work? I’d love to hear about it in the comments!


Susan Spann acquired her love of books and reading during her preschool days in Santa Monica, California. As a child she read everything from National Geographic to Agatha Christie. In high school, she once turned a short-story assignment into a full-length fantasy novel (which, fortunately, will never see the light of day).

A yearning to experience different cultures sent Susan to Tufts University in Boston, where she immersed herself in the history and culture of China and Japan. After earning an undergraduate degree in Asian Studies, Susan diverted to law school. She returned to California to practice law, where her continuing love of books has led her to specialize in intellectual property, business and publishing contracts.

Susan’s interest in Japanese history, martial arts, and mystery inspired her to write the Shinobi Mystery series featuring Hiro Hattori, a sixteenth-century ninja who brings murderers to justice with the help of Father Mateo, a Portuguese Jesuit priest. When not writing or representing clients, Susan enjoys traditional archery, martial arts, horseback riding, online gaming, and raising seahorses and rare corals in her highly distracting marine aquarium. Susan lives in Sacramento with her husband, son, three cats, one bird, and a multitude of assorted aquatic creatures.

For more information please visit Susan Spann’s website and blog. You can also find her on Facebook, Twitter, and Goodreads.  (All images in this post are owned by Susan Spann.)

About Flask of the Drunken Master:

August 1565: When a rival artisan turns up dead outside Ginjiro’s brewery, and all the evidence implicates the brewer, master ninja Hiro Hattori and Portuguese Jesuit Father Mateo must find the killer before the magistrate executes Ginjiro and seizes the brewery, leaving his wife and daughter destitute. A missing merchant, a vicious debt collector, and a female moneylender join Ginjiro and the victim’s spendthrift son on the suspect list. But with Kyoto on alert in the wake of the shogun’s recent death, a rival shinobi on the prowl, and samurai threatening Hiro and Father Mateo at every turn, Ginjiro’s life is not the only one in danger.

Will Hiro and Father Mateo unravel the clues in time to save Ginjiro’s life, or will the shadows gathering over Kyoto consume the detectives as well as the brewer?

Flask of the Drunken Master (St. Martin's Press, July 2015, 304pp, hardcover and ebook) is the latest entry in Susan Spann’s thrilling 16th century Japanese mystery series, featuring ninja detective Hiro Hattori and Jesuit Father Mateo. Check out other stops along her blog tour.


  1. Replies
    1. I was pleased to feature it - glad you enjoyed the read.

  2. For one of my novels, I needed to know the time of high tide at London Bridge on a particular day in April 1536. I didn't want to put in a time of my choosing, because I knew that some pest would write in and tell me that I had got it wrong. I enquired of the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, who replied that it was not possible to calculate definite times, but a standard estimating formula would put high tide in the morning at around 9 a.m.—which is exactly when I needed it to be.

    1. Now that's an authoritative source. I'm glad to hear they respond to such questions. And a neat story, too.

  3. Anonymous6:04 AM

    What an interesting post - love it! I am on this tour, too, and just loved the book. I look forward to more in the series and now I will be thinking about dragons!! -beth of beth's book-nook blog

    1. I enjoyed your short review - and agree it would be nice to see the books made into a TV series. A Japanese historical setting would be nice for a change!

  4. I love dragons too, and trust in their power to reveal themselves when the moment is right. A miracle came to me late in the life of my time-slip novel, Nights of the Road. For more than a year, I had lived with two women, dutifully listening to and re-telling their tales that unfolded nearly four hundred years apart in time. I had been 'writing blind', without understanding why and how the womens' stories connected. As I lay with my modern fictional heroine on the grassy slope of an ancient English castle in Chapter 45, our 17th century real life companion revealed herself to us in our 21st century time frame. Suddenly all about their relationship became clear, even if I yet didn't know how their respective stories would complete and resolve! An earlier 'miracle' had come while working several chapters earlier in that same book, when my frustration with one of the real life characters was resolved. Everything I knew from my researches of him suggested that this man was a Gemini and yet his reported birthdate declared otherwise. What a delight to wake up and realise that I had been using the 'wrong calendar' in reading his astrological sign. And what a delight to confirm that I had indeed 'read him right'! Your lovely website is also something of an ongoing miracle in my life, Sarah: it reveals again and again such dragon treasures as this post by Susan. Thank you both and love to you and all dragons everywhere.

    1. It's great how that plotting conundrum with the two women worked itself out. And thanks very much for the compliment, Midi, that's really nice of you to say!