Deb Susan was Attacked by Ninjas

The inspiration for the Shinobi Mysteries hit me unexpectedly, in late spring 2012 2011.** I had just finished my fourth historical manuscript (not realizing that it and its three companions would soon become my “trunk manuscript collection”) and had no idea what I should be writing next.

One morning, as I stood at the bathroom mirror putting on makeup in preparation for work, a voice in my head said “Most ninjas commit murders, but Hiro Hattori solves them.”

A moment and a thought that changed my life.

Before that, I wrote historical fiction. I considered mystery very complicated, and though I adore both mysteries and thrillers the thought of writing one seemed as far beyond my skills as climbing Everest or starting a new career in neurosurgery.

In the weeks that followed, however, Hiro – and the  idea of mysteries set Samurai-era Japan (Muromachi, for the Japanese scholars among you) – just wouldn’t let go. My love of Japanese history and my undergraduate degree in Asian Studies (not exactly the norm for a publishing lawyer) finally seemed to have a purpose after all.

When I finally accepted that this Hiro had chosen me (pun intended) the rest fell into place.

Real-life ninja(s) had the strongest influence between 1500 and 1650, so I wanted to set my novel in that period. My shinobi (the period-appropriate word for “ninja”) needed to live where plenty of murders happened so I made him an undercover agent assigned to Kyoto (at that time, the Capital of Japan).

But dropping an undercover agent into a hostile Capital run by a powerful Shogun who hated spies gave Hiro no reason to solve a crime. In fact, it increased his incentive to stay undercover.

Hiro needed to hide in plain sight, and since I’m never one to pass on conflict, I assigned poor Hiro to guard the life of a Portuguese Jesuit – for reasons that even Hiro didn’t know (though I do, and eventually the series’ readers will too). But, by order of his clan, Hiro’s life depends on Father Mateo’s continuing survival.

  So … I had a master ninja sworn to protect a Portuguese priest in a city and time where war seemed imminent and the smallest transgression could lead to execution. I tossed in a Portuguese weapons dealer, a couple of geisha, a murdered samurai and a paper-eating kitten (did I mention the priest is allergic to cats?), stirred well … and CLAWS OF THE CAT was born.

And – as I mentioned before – the title has nothing to do with Hiro’s kitten. Or real cats of any kind. It’s actually a ninja reference, but you’ll have to stay tuned to find out what – and how I chose it.


In the end, though, I owe it all to being attacked by ninjas.


Has inspiration ever struck you at an odd or unexpected moment? I’d love to hear where you were when inspiration hit – and what odd (or not-so-odd) things it made you do!



** My law partner, friend & peer editor (all in one!) just pointed out that my agent must be REALLY good if she sold my novel before I even wrote it. Whoops. I’m not allowed out of the cage without proofreading any more.

19 Replies to “Deb Susan was Attacked by Ninjas”

    1. Isn’t it amazing the way ideas just appear out of nowhere!

      And thanks…I’m glad I did too! I was scared to try mystery, but now that I’m writing it I realize it’s exactly the right thing for me. (A relief!)

  1. The idea for my first book sneaked up on me as I was falling asleep — you could say it attacked me ;-). But for my second book, the idea sort of evolved from a series of gut feelings, until it finally gelled into something workable (er, since I’m still knee-deep in revisions and haven’t sold it yet, the jury is still out on how “workable” it is…). Can’t wait to read this story!

    1. I loved your story attack post earlier in the week! I think your novel sounds fantastic and I can’t wait to get my hands on it!

      It’s neat that you’ve had two different kinds of inspirations – I’ve had story inspirations come from all kind of odd places. In fact, the inspiration for Book 3 in the Shinobi series kind of gelled for me like that. I wanted the story to feature some of the secondary characters from Book 1 because they were too good to “lose” forever. It took me a little time to realize how their stories should come together, but once I did, I knew it would work. Well, I hope it will work! (I’m about to start working on it in October, so I’ll let you know.) – We can muddle through together!

  2. I love this story of inspiration! AND your book sounds even more fascinating to me now that I know this.

    I was preparing to get into the shower one day, lamenting the whole leg-shaving thing, when I had a flash of a scene pop into my head. A couple of teens are kissing and the girl says to the boy, “I’m not shaving my legs for you.” and the boy says, “I’m totally into sasquatch.” And that was the inspiration for my (currently unsold) YA TOMBOY.

    1. That’s a great scene, Joanne – and a fascinating idea for a novel. I love the protagonist – a girl comfortable enough in her own skin (and body image) to make a statement like that, and a boy capable of responding with humor. I hope it sells quickly! Let me know, too, because it’s one I’d like to read (and recommend!). We always need more YA with confident protagonists who trust themselves. I wish there were more role models like that when I was growing up. (Not that Anne of Green Gables was a bad one, mind – Anne Shirley and I got along just fine.)

      Thanks for sharing your inspiration – I love hearing what prompted other authors’ books.

      1. Thanks, Susan. I love that you got on with Anne (with an e). We are such kindred spirits. You and me, I mean. Not me and Anne. Well, yes, me and Anne, also. Okay, so all three of us. Kindred spirits. Together. All three. Yeah.

  3. Wow, Susan, I love it that that sentence popped into your head like that. I agree with Joanne that your book sounds even more interesting now.

    Most of all, I find it fascinating that the book you wrote because of an inspired thought is the book that’s getting published. Would you say that it’s the book that really clicked for you while you were writing it? The timing was right, for sure, because you’d certainly paid your writing dues!

    1. I’d definitely say this was the one that clicked for me. I’d been learning and improving my skill for years on the other manuscripts, and each one taught me something important about craft, but it wasn’t until CLAWS that I really felt the pieces come together as a whole. Ironically, it was both harder and easier to write than anything I’d written before it. The writing part went faster too.

      I hope you enjoy the story – I love Hiro and Father Mateo and all the others, and I hope readers like them too.

  4. Now that the link is working I am here. And I love the way the story comes. I do my most important, inspired thinking in the shower. I figure out story hitches, personal issues, and work glitches in the warm, dim (yes, dim — it’s too early in the morning for bright lights; I like to ease into waking up to the daylight) steam of a good shower.

    I can’t wait to read it, Susan. And here’s to many other mysteries for your Hiro to solve!

    1. Thanks for coming over to read Thea!

      I’ve solved some plot issues in the shower myself – and I totally hear you on easing into the day. I’m not really a morning person, even though I’d like to be. I’m a night owl born and bred.

      It makes me happy to hear you’re looking forward to the novel – I really hope you like it! And I hope I get the chance to write many more.

  5. Everyone is posting comments about not being able to wait to read your novel. I suppose it would be really snarky of me to comment that I’ve already read it. 😛
    I will say that it’s VERY GOOD.
    …and (I know I’ve already told you this so it shouldn’t be a surprise) it’s much better than your historicals. This one is so much more you. It’s a perfect fit.

  6. I just love that you can say you were attacked by ninjas. That makes me ridiculously happy. And I too can’t wait to read this book. In one of Terry Pratchett’s discworld books – can’t remember which one – there’s this bit about ideas just floating around in the air, looking for a brain they can infiltrate. I love how this idea found you, and how the other ideas, all so very different, caught up to the rest of us.

    1. Thanks Kerry! It makes me smile to say it. I’m a Discworld fan too, by the way, and I totally remember that idea. Loved it then, and it definitely takes on new meaning this week, hearing about how all of us found our inspiration!

  7. Hope your YA book sells. There is a big need for something besides vampires, and there is too little good humor for girls that age, IMO.

    Are you old enough to remember the Shogun mini-series on tv? Your shinobi series sounds like it could revive interest in that fascinating era.

    1. Thanks Sally! I really appreciate the good wishes and encouragement. My novels are actually adult mystery, not YA, but I’ve written them in a way that will actually appeal to readers who like YA as well. In fact, my teenage son was one of my active critique partners – I wanted to be sure the novels would appeal to people his age and to boys as well as girls. I deliberately kept the content appropriate for a YA audience (there’s not really much difference between YA and adult fiction, truthfully, except for the age of the protagonists – mine are in their late 20s). There’s definitely a need for more content that isn’t “more of the same.”

      One other thing I focused on was making sure I had solid, strong, believable female characters – including a female samurai – to balance the male cast.

      I loved Shogun – both the novel and the mini-series (Richard Chamberlain was way hot then, wasn’t he?) – and I’m thrilled you made the connection! It’s absolutely the right era!

      1. OMG, yes he was hot, then. Between Shogun and Thorn Birds I think everyone was smitten. I actually read Shogun before the tv series, but the clothing, the settings, and the whole atmosphere of the mini-series really added another layer to the story.

        1. I loved the miniseries and the novel for the exact same reasons. That was part of what prompted me to major in Asian Studies in college – Shogun was my first introduction to Asia and to its multi-layered culture and history. I guess, in some small way, it started me on the path that eventually led to the Shinobi series.

          Amazing what influences early experiences can exert on us!

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