Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Tracking the Ninja, From Fiction to History and Back

By Susan Spann, @SusanSpann

JH: Please join me in welcoming Susan Spann to the blog today, to talk about creating the perfect ninja. Okay, there's a bit more to it than that, and she'll also share tips on researching historical periods, but ninjas seem way cooler. Especially a ninja detective mystery.

Susan is a transactional attorney and former law school professor whose practice focuses on publishing law and business. Claws of the Cat, her debut shinobi mystery featuring ninja detective Hiro Hattori, released today from Minotaur Books. Susan has a deep interest in Asian culture and has studied Mandarin and Japanese. Her hobbies include Asian cooking, fencing, traditional archery, martial arts, rock climbing, and horseback riding, and she keeps a marine aquarium where she raises seahorses and rare corals.

Take it away Susan...

When I set out to write a ninja detective mystery series set in 16th century Kyoto, I realized research would be, at once, my biggest asset and my biggest challenge.

My undergraduate degree in Asian Studies gave me a solid working knowledge of samurai-era Japan, but that didn’t mean the topic wasn’t tricky. For one thing, ninjas (shinobi in the Japanese pronunciation) have descended through history as mixtures of truth and myth. Even during the height of shinobi power and activity, the myth of the ninja as super-human permeated Japanese culture and legend.

I wanted to be sure my fictitious protagonist, an Iga ninja named Hiro Hattori, was as real—and as human—as I could make him. However, he also had to live up to the ninja legend, or my readers would find him dull at best.

An interesting challenge, and one that led to many hours of research.

Despite my foundation in Japanese history, I read everything I could find about shinobi, from historical documents written by ninjas and samurai to modern descriptions of shinobi-jutsu and the men and women who practice its arts today.

But I didn’t stop at reading. In order to build a believable world for my ninja sleuth to inhabit, I needed to know all I could about the places and era in which he lived. I looked at ancient maps and modern photographs. I studied architecture. I ate the foods—or, at least, the closest I could get to medieval Japanese cuisine.

Many of the Kyoto landmarks featured in Claws of the Cat are still in existence, and since I wanted to get the descriptions right, I found a way to get “eyes on the ground” despite the distance that separates my home in California from Japan. I made contact with a Kyoto tour guide named Tomoko, who graciously agreed to translate maps and help me with some of the questions I needed answered. She sent me maps and photographs, and helped me with details I couldn’t have confirmed without her help.

Perhaps the most important thing I learned from the process of tracking down the truth about historical ninjas, as well as Kyoto’s landmarks, is that modern research means much more than sticking a nose in a book. The Internet offers access to electronic books in volumes and on subjects we couldn’t imagine even a decade ago, and, in addition, offers countless images to assist with our research. Maps, portraits, photos and video, all available at the click of a mouse if you know where to look.

The key, for me, was learning how to find it.

A Google search for “Pontocho” revealed a video taken in Kyoto’s famous pleasure district, allowing me to walk in Hiro’s footsteps without ever leaving home. Seeing the crowded, narrow alley informed my writing and gave my words a whole new impact.

I found Tomoko through a similar search—for Kyoto monuments, specifically Tofuku-ji, a temple that plays a significant part in the book. Her organization gives tours of the temple. I emailed her to ask if she could obtain an English map of the grounds, and offered to pay for the map and shipping to the United States. Although no English map exists, Tomoko graciously offered to translate the Japanese version for me—an unexpected and incredibly valuable gift, and another hidden benefit of research.

Through various forms of research, and many sources, I tracked down my historical ninja and parsed the legends until I found a way to honor the shinobi myths without sacrificing the fascinating truth about who ninjas really were. I’m pleased with the result, and with the book, and delighted that the research paid off in such a rewarding fashion.

If you’re writing a novel, or thinking about writing one, I cannot recommend research strongly enough. The Internet offers a fabulous resource (if, sometimes, a tricky one) and sharp details enhance the writing experience as well as the reading one.

Thank you so much, Janice, for letting me share your blog today. I appreciate the opportunity to share a little about my research journey!

About Claws of the Cat

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.


  1. Thanks! Loved hearing about your research. The book sounds great.

  2. Thank you Mary! And thank you to Janice for hosting me here today!!