10 things Susan Spann Didn’t Know She Needed to Know Before Writing her Novel

Posted by

woman-thinkingI’m excited to begin a series of guests posts featuring authors who will be telling us THINGS I DIDN’T KNOW I’D NEED TO KNOW BEFORE WRITING MY NOVEL.

For me, the research aspect of writing a novel — especially a historical one — was the fun part. It’s much easier to passively take in information than actively create a story.

This past year, I’ve been having the chance to connect with lots of historical authors, and I’m constantly amazed at how far they travel, both in time and geographically.A? Compared to the places many authors take their imaginations, my journey to 1907 Manhattan in ASTOR PLACE VINTAGE seems quite close to home!

My first guest is Susan Spann, and her novel took her to 16th century Japan.

This book is the first of a Shinobi Mystery series that follows a crime-solving duo of a ninja detective and his Portuguese Jesuit sidekick.”

Claws of the Cat by Susan Spann

Claws of the Cat by Susan Spann

When a samurai is brutally murdered in a Kyoto teahouse, master ninja Hiro Hattori has just three days to find the killer before the dead man’s vengeful son kills both the beautiful geisha accused of the crime and Father Mateo, the Jesuit priest that Hiro has pledged his own life to protect. The investigation plunges Hiro and Father Mateo into the dangerous waters of Kyoto’s floating world, where they quickly learn that everyone from an elusive teahouse owner to the dead man’s dishonored brother has a motive to keep the samurai’s death a mystery.
Ten Things I Didn’t Know I Needed to Know Before Writing CLAWS OF THE CAT


Prior to writing Claws of the Cat, the first Shinobi Mystery, I’d written a couple of manuscripts, but never one set in medieval Japan. I studied Japanese history and culture in college, and loved the medieval (samurai) era, but I still had a lot of work to do to write a novel (and now, a series) set in medieval Japan.

(Click on the question to reveal the answer)



[expand title=”1. What is the Japanese word for ninja?“]Shinobi. The word ninja is actually based on a Chinese pronunciation. The Japanese pronounce those same characters “shinobi.”[/expand]


[expand title=”2. When did Portuguese Jesuits arrive in Japan?“]1549. I wanted to set my novels a few decades after the Portuguese arrived, but before the sight of foreigners had become commonplace to Japanese people. Before the arrival of Portuguese merchants in 1543, Japan had no significant contact with the West, so even in 1565, the sight of a foreigner could still spark interesting reactions.[/expand]


[expand title=”3. Did shinobi (ninjas) really act as bodyguards and spies, as well as assassins?“]Yes! And good thing, too. I needed Hiro to have a job that allowed him to become a detective as well as a spy. In medieval Japan, shinobi filled a variety of spy-related functions. Some worked as assassins, while others worked undercover as spies or bodyguards. Some even lived false lives for years, waiting the time when their secret skills would be needed.[/expand]


[expand title=”4. Did shinobi act independently, or did they belong to larger organizations?“]Most shinobi belonged to clans. The clan leader accepted (or refused) job requests from Japanese warlords and others (usually samurai) and assigned them to individual shinobi under his control (much the way organized crime bosses have done in many places throughout history). During the 16th century, the most powerful shinobi clans had bases at Iga and Koga Provinces.

My detective, Hiro, is a shinobi from the Iga clan.[/expand]


[expand title=”5. Did ninjas really use throwing stars (shuriken) and other special weapons like we see in Japanese movies?“]They did. Shinobi studied, and used, a variety of specialized weapons. Some, like the shuriken (also called a “throwing star” or “ninja star”) weren’t used exactly the way we often see them in movies, or had additional uses as well, but they did exist and shinobi really used them.

Researching the various weapons, and finding ways to include them in my novels, was really fun![/expand]



[expand title=”6. Could women own businesses in medieval Japan?“]Again, yes! Women often owned and operated businesses within the entertainment sector. Women most commonly owned teahouses, “geisha houses” and brothels, but female sake brewers and artisans also existed.[/expand]


[expand title=”7. Are geishas the same as prostitutes?“]No. In most cases, geishas’ sexual favors were not for sale. Geishas were supposed to have sex with one special patron (who paid handsomely for the privilege) at the start of the geisha’s career, but that relationship was not supposed to last for long, and was intended to give the geisha a “maturity” that the culture believed virgins lacked. As a general rule, geishas were entertainers whose services consisted of conversation, singing, dance, and other arts that did not include sex for hire.[/expand]Geisha-girls


[expand title=”8. Did 16th century Japanese houses have hallways?“]No. Although the early drafts of my novel did put hallways in some of the houses, when I double-checked my books about Japanese architecture, I realized that hallways didn’t come into common use in Japan until almost 100 years after my novel is set. In the next draft, all of the hallways disappeared.[/expand]


[expand title=”9. Were there really Portuguese arms dealers in 16th century Japan?“]Yes. Portuguese traders tried to sell a variety of Western goods to the Japanese, but the one that inspired the greatest interest was something the Japanese called the tanegashima (after the name of the island where the Portuguese first landed in Japan).

In the West, we call that item an “arquebus.”

Medieval Japan was ruled by samurai, members of the warrior class, who not only understood weapons but appreciated their use. The samurai quickly integrated the arquebus into their battle strategies, and by the mid-16th century there was significant demand for Portuguese firearms in Japan.[/expand]


[expand title=”10. Did medieval Kyoto have a police force?“]Yes, and a highly organized one, at that. Justice was handed down, and trials conducted, by a pair of magistrates appointed by the shogun. Beneath the magistrates, as many as two dozen “assistant magistrates” (called yoriki) performed the job of police supervisors and inspectors. Beneath the yoriki were the doshin, who fulfilled the functions we might expect from “beat cop” — patrolling streets, making arrests, and keeping the peace within the Japanese capital.[/expand]

I learned many more things, too, but those are ten of the most intriguing. Did any of them surprise you?


Susan Spann writes the Shinobi Mysteries, featuring ninja detective Hiro Hattori. Her debut novel, CLAWS OF THE CAT (Minotaur Books, 2013), was named a Library Journal Mystery Debut of the Month. The second Shinobi Mystery, BLADE OF THE SAMURAI, will release July 15, 2014. Susan is also a transactional attorney whose practice focuses on publishing law and business. When not writing or practicing law, she raises seahorses and rare corals in her marine aquarium. You can find her online at her website, http://www.SusanSpann.com, and on Twitter (@SusanSpann).