Crisp prose, fresh insights and spicy wit were among the ingredients of the spring salad of authors served up at yesterday's Washington Post Book and Author Luncheon. About 700 people heard authors Susan Sheehan, Henry Mitchell and Gail Godwin speak at the Sheraton Washington about their work.

New Yorker magazine writer Sheehan, whose book "Is There No Place On Earth For Me?" paints a detailed portrait of a paranoid schizophrenic, told of spending a year and a half with a mental patient in an institution for material for her new book and almost two years visiting a men's prison in New York for a previous story. "I'll leave it to others to mock the rubber chicken and silver peas of the luncheon circuit," she said to an audience that had just finished a lunch of baked chicken and salad. "For me, today's lunch is upward mobility."

"A reporter's job is to chronicle life . . . Some of us include the First Amendment in our nightly prayers," said Sheehan, who added that she is often asked how she can write in such meticulous detail. "The answer to most of the questions about reporting is a simple one: I was there. It's important to 'be there,' because when you're there long enough, people forget about you and carry on with their lives in a normal way. Of course there were times when I couldn't be there. As much as I believe a reporter should record the events in her patient's life, I also believe she shouldn't change them."

Henry Mitchell, "Earthman" columnist and author of "The Essential Earthman," delivered a humorous, rambling monologue on the ultimate value of gardening. Introduced as "the philosopher king of the garden, bard of the bulbs, rajah of the rhododendrons," Mitchell said, "Gardening, of course, is something that has delighted and sustained me through all the little agonies that we humans go through. But it's not something that means a great deal when you're on your deathbed." He continued, "We learn by bitter experience, but it's bittersweet . . . One of the great good things in life are the lovely yellow tree peonies. I'm now on my fifth one, and it's now as dead as the other ones."

Novelist Gail Godwin, whose "A Mother and Two Daughters" is on the best-seller lists, remembered growing up in Asheville, N.C., "preempted by a famous novelist Thomas Wolfe . . . everything had already been described by him . . . many of his characters still walked our streets." So Godwin left in her teens to write novels about faraway places she had visited. But after receiving a poignant letter from a home-town girlfriend, Godwin found herself digging back into her town's rich lode of characters. "My friend, with her anecdote, had not only given me the idea of a triumvirate of women who must fight and hurt, but also transported me back to the town of my childhood."