How do you stop a plot to kill a man who’s been dead for five hundred years?
In my case, it required a map, a tour guide, and a ninja.
My second Hiro Hattori novel (Shinobi Mystery), Blade of the Samurai, involved a plot to assassinate the 13th Ashikaga Shogun, Japan’s military leader from 1546 to 1565.
In the novel, the shogun’s cousin is stabbed to death inside the shogun’s palace, and master ninja Hiro Hattori (along with his Portuguese Jesuit sidekick, Father Mateo) must find the killer and stop the plot – or face execution in the killer’s place.
Writing historical mysteries is a lot like making a feature film. The “sets” and backdrops need to be convincing and period-accurate, but not so obtrusive or overwhelming that the reader loses track of the plot. If you, the author, spend too much time orienting your readers in the world, you lose the game (and the reader as well). On the other hand, if the details fail in terms of historical accuracy, readers will call shenanigans and leave the book on the shelf (or, worse, the recycle bin).
Those challenges magnify when the setting is 16th century Japan—an era so rich in culture and detail that it’s easy to make mistakes in either direction.
As it happens, the biggest challenge I faced in writing Blade was figuring out where to place the shogun’s palace.
You’d think this would be a simple task. The Ashikaga shoguns lived in elaborate palaces (the Japanese word translates “mansions”) in Kyoto, an ancient city which served as the Japanese capital for over a thousand years. The city hasn’t changed that much in centuries, and many medieval mansions remain intact.
By the 16th century, the Ashikaga samurai clan had controlled Japan for over 100 years. Their palaces were landmarks in Kyoto. However, medieval Japanese buildings were often built from wood (with tile roofs) and fires were commonplace. Shoguns’ palaces burned to the ground on several occasions during the 15th and 16th centuries, making it difficult to determine exactly where the shogun lived in June of 1565. In fact, my research revealed two possible options … located several blocks apart.
The shogun’s palace plays an enormous role in Blade of the Samurai (there’s even a map of the compound in the opening pages of the book) and although most readers would probably forgive me an error of a block or two (assuming they noticed) I felt an obligation to do everything I could to get it right.
Enter the tour guide.
While researching the first Shinobi Mystery, Claws of the Cat, I met a woman named Tomoko, who gives tours of Japanese landmarks through a service called Kyoto Free Guide. Tomoko helped me with maps of Tofuku-ji (a Kyoto temple) for my first novel, Claws of the Cat, and was able to track down the proper “version” of the shogun’s palace, and its location, for Blade of the Samurai. She also sent me photographs of 16th century buildings, which I used as models for the houses and a sake brewery in the novels.
I modified the floor plan of the shogun’s palace slightly, for plot purposes, by blending the 16th century version with a 17th century palace called Nijo Castle (built by Tokugawa Ieyasu after the fall of the Ashikaga shogunate):
Even so, I was glad to have the physical location exactly right.
Most readers will never know that it took me days of work, and outside help, to hunt down a long-dead shogun and try to kill him. But in the end, I believe attention to detail makes a difference—and hopefully, the readers think so, too.
How do you feel about historical accuracy in novels? Is it as important to you as it is to me?