Susan Spann Talks with Me about Writing Mysteries, Asian Fascination, and Raising Seahorses!

Today I have a wonderful mystery…the mystery behind the writing, reading, and seahorse raising life of Susan Spann! Just kidding, it’s not a mystery, but the interview is great and I hope you stay and enjoy the read! Maybe see what her favorite Agatha Christie mystery is? If you missed my review yesterday, in which I raved about the book,  you can view it HERE. Enjoy!

Blade of the Samurai

Hi, Susan! Welcome to Oh, for the Hook of a Book! It’s not 16th Century Japan, but I’ll try to make you at home here as well and we’ll talk about your life and your books.

Just take off your shoes and have a sit on the mat with me. I’ll call for tea. What kinds of tea would you prefer today?

Susan: I’d love some white jasmine tea – it’s my favorite, especially the pearl-shaped kind!

Erin: I’ll have what you’re having! That sounds delightful. Let’s settle in and get started.

Q: It sounds like the history and culture of China and Japan have always intrigued you, even before you went into law. What was the catalyst for this interest? What motivates you about the subject?

A: I “discovered” Japan in 1980, when I saw the SHOGUN miniseries on TV (the one with Richard Chamberlain in the starring role). The day the miniseries ended, I went to the library, checked out the James Clavell novel that inspired the program, and fell in love with the samurai era.

Ironically, my deeper interest in Asian history came from a book I never read. In 1983 (and yes, I’m dating myself a little), my seventh-grade history class was assigned to read a book called THROUGH CHINESE EYES, which talked about Asian history through the eyes of the people who lived it. Before that, I thought of history as “dates and dead guys” – but when my class ran out of time and didn’t get to reading that book, it made me wonder what I might have missed. Now, of course, I realize that I could have read the book on my own, but seventh-grade me considered the “missing book” an intriguing mystery to the “real” nature of history.

By the time I reached college, and discovered that “Asian Studies” was “a thing,” I dove right in and never looked back.

Q: You started reading Agatha Christie at a young age. I am a huge fan! What is your favorite mystery that she has written? What techniques does she use that all mystery writers still today can study?

A: My favorite Agatha Christie novel is The Floating Admiral, (( a novel she co-authored with thirteen other mystery writers as a collaborative game. Each author wrote one chapter, continuing the story with no knowledge of the “solution” the previous author(s) had in mind, but which must account for or include the clues and suspects presented in previous chapters. It’s a delightful exercise in mystery, and a fun novel on many levels.

As far as her independent works, my favorite is Murder on the Orient Express. It was one of the first mystery novels I ever read (I was ten years old, and got it from the library), and I still remember being shocked and delighted that my love of puzzles could “translate” into books.

I’m a huge fan of the way Christie’s detectives (Poirot is my favorite, by the way) often “reveal” the solution in a room filled with suspects, using the explanation to draw a confession from the guilty party. I love it so much, I’ve deliberately included it in my novels, too!

Erin: Murder on the Orient Express is one of my top favorites of her also. I was shocked that my love of trains, mysteries, writing could all assemble!

Q: I’m sure your love of mysteries helped to inspire you to write them too! Was it fun to merge two of your favorites together (mysteries and cultural/historical Japan)? What made you decide to write this kind of fiction, beyond your love of both things?

A: I was attacked by ninjas! Well, in reality it wasn’t quite that glamorous. I was standing in front of the bathroom mirror, getting ready for work, one morning in 2011, and I had a random thought: “Most ninjas commit murders, but Hiro Hattori solves them.”

I knew immediately that this was a book, and a series, I had to write.

Q: When you started out did you find it easier or harder to write a mystery than you expected? What challenges did you have and what breakthroughs? What did you do differently the second time that you learned from the first?

A: I’d resisted writing a mystery, despite my love for the genre, because I was afraid I’d do it badly. But when I actually sat down to write, the pieces fell into place much faster and more easily than I imagined. By the time I finished writing the first Shinobi Mystery, Claws of the Cat, I realized I’d found my writing niche.

One of the biggest challenges, for me, is narrowing the “cast list.” Every novel I write starts out with 3-5 extra characters who seem important in the outline but end up as “fifth wheels” when the drafting starts. I normally either meld them into other characters or cut them out of the book completely. Whatever role they supposedly filled gets handed to someone else.

The biggest change I made in writing Blade of the Samurai, which I continued to use in the third book Flask of the Drunken Master, and am using while writing the fourth novel also, is the elimination of chapter breaks in the early drafts. I write sequentially (some writers skip around in the scenes, but I write my novels straight through, start to finish), and writing without any chapter breaks lets me focus on the story as a whole. By the time I reach draft 3, I can see where the natural breaks arise, so that’s when I add the “chapters.”

Q: How do you create your characters? Are they outlined and determined with strict guidelines or do they call the shots?

A: A little of both.

I outline every novel, and my outlines include a name and short biography of every character (primary and secondary) who has a “speaking role” in the novel. I try to develop the characters as much as I can before I start writing, because it helps to create more depth – the more real they are to me, the more real they seem on the page.

Once the drafting starts, however, I let the characters off the leash—and anything can happen. My newest novel Blade of the Samurai, features a teenaged samurai named Ichiro who wasn’t even in the original outline but ultimately proved critical to the story. I love surprises, and discovering a new, favorite character in the drafting process is an excellent surprise.

Q: You like martial arts, so do you practice any? Or are you just like me and enjoy watching them? Ever since Karate Kid and the American Ninja movies, I’ve been hooked. What types do you enjoy, either doing, studying, or watching?

A: I’ve studied Tae Kwon Do, Hapkido, and some traditional sword and archery arts, as well as a little knife and shuriken throwing. I’ve always wanted to study Aikido and Kendo, and I’m hoping to find a place to do that soon.

Q: How do you learn to “write” ninja action into a fiction novel? What did you have to learn to do so precisely and with momentum enough for readers? Do you write like for the screen or with more details for die-hard readers?

A: It helped to study martial arts, both in person and by watching other practitioners sparring. When you’ve held a sword, and taken a punch, you develop a sense of what’s possible (and what’s not). I tend to think visually, and I watch a lot of movies, so that definitely plays into the writing, too.

Q: Are your mystery novels purely fiction or do you have any historical fact interwoven into them? What is your overall plot line for the series or are they stand alone mysteries?

A: Hiro and Father Mateo are purely fictitious, and the plots all center on “made-up murders,” but the backdrop and some of the secondary characters in my novels are based on historical fact. I try to weave at least one “real” historical subplot into each book in the series – in Blade of the Samurai, it has to do with the shogun, though I can’t tell you more without spoilers! The way the subplot unfolds doesn’t always track the history exactly. I do take some license there, though I try not to write anything that contradicts known historical facts in a significant way if I can help it.

The books also feature “real” historical figures, in supporting roles, though obviously I have to fictionalize them for the novels. Blade of the Samurai introduces Matsunaga Hisahide, a real Japanese warlord who played a major role in Japanese history during the mid-16th century. He’s well-known in Japan, so I felt a great responsibility to write him as well as possible.

I do have an over-arching plot line for the series, even though each novel is stand-alone. As the series continues, readers will learn more about Hiro’s mysterious background, and more about Father Mateo and the other recurring characters too!

Q: I can’t NOT ask this question, based on the fact that I am a seahorse fanatic, you raise seahorses??! How adorable. Also, rare sea coral? Please do tell, I’m very interested in how easy or difficult this is within an aquarium. Do they ever beg for face time in your novels?

A: I’ve loved seahorses all my life, and jumped at the chance to set up a seahorse reef when I started working from home five years ago. They do take a little extra care – for example, they don’t have stomachs like most creatures do, so they have to eat at least once, and preferably twice, each day – but they’re remarkably interactive and totally worth the extra effort.

They don’t beg for face time in the novels, but they DO beg for food. The tank sits directly to the right of my writing desk, and the female spends her evenings tapping the glass with her snout and swimming up and down to get my attention. When I do turn and look, she swims to the spot where I put her food and looks at me, clearly hoping I get the point. I didn’t realize how smart, and how interactive, seahorses really were until I started raising them. They’re remarkable little creatures!

Q: I also know of course that you are an attorney and you help authors with publishing law. That’s fantastic. Besides your help on Twitter (@susanspann) with the hashtag, #PubLaw, why do authors need assistance in this regard and what do you do to lead them in the right direction? Do you take clients from anywhere or stay focused in your location?

A: Many authors get so excited by the prospect (or offer) of a publishing contract that they don’t stop to consider the “fine print” in the contract. This can be dangerous, because the contract governs the relationship between the author and the publisher, and once it’s signed there’s no “going back” unless both sides agree to change the terms (which almost never happens). My goal with #PubLaw is to help spread the word about important contract terms – the ones to look for and the ones to avoid – and to encourage writers to get legal help with contracts, from an agent or attorney, whenever possible.

Most of my clients do live in California, but when the circumstances and lawyers’ licensing rules permit, I take clients who live outside the state as well.

Q: Your first mystery novel, Claws of the Cat, did very well and was named a Library Journal Mystery Novel of the Month. Of course, I know you are hoping for more good news with Blade of the Samurai. But will there be more in the series? What’s coming next?

A: The third Shinobi Mystery, Flask of the Drunken Master, is already with the publisher, and I’m working on the fourth installment, under the working title Blood of the Outcast. That title might change, but Flask of the Drunken Master will publish under that title in July 2015!

Q: Where can readers and writers connect with you?

A: The best way to reach me is either via my website ( – there’s an email widget there on the contact page – or on Facebook (I’m SusanSpannAuthor) or Twitter (@SusanSpann). I love to connect with readers and other authors, so I welcome email, tweets and Facebook messages!

Erin: Thank you so very much for coming by Susan to tell us a little about yourself, your love of Japanese culture, your novels, and your cute seahorses. Best of luck to you with your writing! Will be happy to see you back when you release your next book!

Susan: Thank you for having me here, Erin! I had a great time talking with you, and appreciate the chance to talk with you and your readers about the Shinobi Mysteries, law, and seahorses!

Blade of the Samurai, Synopsis~

Blade of the SamuraiPublication Date: July 15, 2014
Minotaur Books
Formats: eBook, Hardcover

Series: Shinobi Mystery
Genre: Historical Mystery


June, 1565: Master ninja Hiro Hattori receives a pre-dawn visit from Kazu, a fellow shinobi working undercover at the shogunate. Hours before, the Shogun’s cousin, Saburo, was stabbed to death in the Shogun’s palace. The murder weapon: Kazu’s personal dagger. Kazu says he’s innocent, and begs for Hiro’s help, but his story gives Hiro reason to doubt the young shinobi’s claims.

When the Shogun summons Hiro and Father Mateo, the Jesuit priest under Hiro’s protection, to find the killer, Hiro finds himself forced to choose between friendship and personal honor.

The investigation reveals a plot to assassinate the Shogun and overthrow the ruling Ashikaga clan. With Lord Oda’s enemy forces approaching Kyoto, and the murderer poised to strike again, Hiro must use his assassin’s skills to reveal the killer’s identity and protect the Shogun at any cost. Kazu, now trapped in the city, still refuses to explain his whereabouts at the time of the murder. But a suspicious shogunate maid, Saburo’s wife, and the Shogun’s stable master also had reasons to want Saburo dead. With the Shogun demanding the murderer’s head before Lord Oda reaches the city, Hiro and Father Mateo must produce the killer in time … or die in his place.

Blade of the Samurai is a complex mystery that will transport readers to a thrilling and unforgettable adventure in 16th century Japan.

Book One of the Shinobi Mysteries series, Claws of the Cat, was released in 2013.

Praise for Blade of the Samurai~

“The second Hiro Hattori mystery (after 2013’s Claws of the Cat) finds the sixteenth-century ninja—and unofficial investigator—presented with an interesting problem…A strong second entry in a very promising series.”—Booklist

“Hiro and Father Mateo’s second adventure (Claws of the Cat, 2013) combines enlightenment on 16th-century Japanese life with a sharp and well-integrated mystery.”—Kirkus Reveiws

Buy the Book~

Amazon UK
Amazon US
Barnes & Noble
Book Depository

Author Susan Spann, Biography~

Susan Spann 1Susan 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 and Twitter.

Tour Schedule:

Hashtags: #BladeoftheSamuraiBlogTour #HFVBTBlogTour #HistNov #HistFic #HistoricalMystery
Twitter Tags: @hfvbt @SusanSpann @MinotaurBooks

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1 Comment

Filed under Q and A with Authors

One response to “Susan Spann Talks with Me about Writing Mysteries, Asian Fascination, and Raising Seahorses!

  1. Thank you so much for hosting me, and for the lovely review yesterday! These were such fun questions – and I’m truly delighted that you enjoyed the book.


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