Monday, January 19, 2015

WHAT THE EXPERTS SAY: Author Sandra Nikolai, “What Makes a Mystery?”

Sandra Nikolai, Author
Sandra Nikolai writes mysteries described by reviewers as “urbane, witty and enjoyable” and “action-packed…with characters who grow as they come to grips with what is happening.” She’s published more than a dozen on-line or printed short stories and two novels (FALSE IMPRESSIONS and FATAL WHISPERS) and a short story (TIMELY ESCAPE) featuring Megan Scott and Michael Elliott as a romantic pair solving crimes. 

A mystery reader since her first Nancy Drew story, Nikolai experienced true crime in real life facing a series of armed bank robberies while working at a bank. Both influenced her to write her own stories. 

In the following article, published earlier on this blog, Nikolai outlines the elements of a good mystery.

What Makes a Mystery?
Sandra Nikolai

Fans of the genre will agree that nothing beats the thrill of reading a mystery and trying to solve it.

But what exactly makes a mystery?

To put a spin on what Sherlock Holmes might have said, “The elements must come together, my dear Watson.”

In a mystery, the plot is the element that weaves events together to create a dramatic and engaging story. The solution to a murder or another crime is gradually revealed by a detective or amateur sleuth through the logical interpretation of evidence and a bit of luck. A mystery is similar to a jigsaw puzzle in that all the pieces of information, or clues, needed to solve the mystery are presented. These clues connect so that the solution or true picture reveals itself by the end of the story.

To continue with the analogy, a piece of a jigsaw puzzle might look as if it connects to another at first glance but then doesn’t, as with certain clues scattered throughout a mystery novel. Clues that mislead, or red herrings, are the ultimate challenge to readers of whodunits. Red herrings raise doubts about characters linked to the victim and expose them as potential suspects, making it harder to determine which one is the real perpetrator.

The investigator is the protagonist or main character, the element with which we form a “human” connection from the onset. Secrecy and danger surround the crime, so it’s normal to fear for the safety of the investigator who gets pulled into the case. If the investigator’s private life is affected by the incident, it can bring into play inner struggles with personal issues and generate more conflict—a situation that keeps us turning the pages.

Suspense is intensified when an amateur sleuth plays the role of investigator because we identify more easily with a protagonist who is inexperienced in solving crimes. Feelings of surprise and fear are heightened each time our hero or heroine experiences a setback or encounters danger. Regardless, we cheer them on, knowing that the end of their journey will bring worthwhile results. Family, friends, and other secondary characters complete the protagonist’s life with their comments, emotions, and actions, and add a realistic feel to the unfolding story.

The perpetrator is the character we love to hate. However, no one is one hundred percent evil, so he or she needs at least one redeeming quality. He might be a family man who takes his kids to baseball games or a part-time volunteer at a hospital. She might be a reliable employee at the office or someone who helps an elderly neighbor with the groceries. A pleasant characteristic in a criminal generates surprise—even horror—when the real perpetrator is exposed. Who? The butler?

No mystery is complete without the element of setting. Forget the “dark and stormy night.” Nothing is more shocking than finding out that your neighbor down the street is a serial killer or that a young woman in the hotel room next to yours was murdered the night before. Extraordinary events that happen to ordinary people in everyday places incite more terror because we can’t possibly imagine such terrible things happening in our little corner of the world.

Whether real or imaginary, the setting adds visual layers to a story by zooming in on small locales, such as a room, and zooming out of larger places, for example, a city landscape. The setting can include a period in time, local news events, the weather, the culture of the population, and natural disasters. These aspects also affect how a character feels and reacts, and intensifies the mood of the story.

Like the pieces of a puzzle, the elements that make a mystery can vary in countless ways. What’s important is that they all fall into place at the end.

About Sandra Nikolai

Sandra Nikolai has published more than a dozen short stories online and in print, garnering Honorable Mentions along the way. She is also the author of a mystery series featuring ghostwriter Megan Scott and investigative reporter Michael Elliott. FALSE IMPRESSIONS and FATAL WHISPERS are the first two books in the series.

When Sandra isn’t weaving ordinary characters into extraordinary, life-threatening situations, she shares her writing experiences on her blog and has been a frequent guest writer on other blogs. She has recently published TIMELY ESCAPE, a short story and prequel to ICY SILENCE, the third novel in her mystery series (expected publication: 2015).

A millionaire’s beautiful young wife.
A homeless woman.
A parish priest.

Three baffling deaths within days. No sign of foul play. No police leads. Even medical authorities can’t explain the cause of death. An unprecedented occurrence in Portland, Maine.

Megan Scott and Michael Elliott look for answers when their trip to this alluring New England town coincides with the mysterious deaths. As they probe deeper, they discover ominous secrets buried decades ago and ruthless killers who won’t let anyone get in the way of revenge.

About TIMELY ESCAPE (a short story)

Megan Scott’s car takes a hit—literally—when a pedestrian is shoved onto the hood. Even worse, the man is one of two notorious prison escapees on the loose in Montreal. Megan chases the felon through the Old Port, convinced that her photographic evidence will lead to his capture.

Just as the escapee disappears aboard a yacht in the marina, another man forces Megan aboard the same yacht at knifepoint. Gagged, tied, and terrified, she witnesses a murder.

Will she be next?

Montreal ghostwriter Megan Scott falls under police suspicion when her husband and a female friend are found murdered. In what a Québec detective calls a crime of passion, startling evidence surfaces to implicate Michael Elliott, a young investigative reporter who’d rather rub elbows with scumbags than live the posh lifestyle he inherited.

Clutched out of her comfort zone, Megan is flung into Michael’s dark world of criminal investigation. As they make a last-ditch attempt to prove their innocence, an elusive enemy closes in and threatens their lives. Who wants them out of the way and why?

Their only path to freedom is to catch the twisted killer before they become the next victims. But not knowing who to trust or where to turn can have consequences that are just as lethal…


To learn more about Sandra and upcoming events, visit her website at

For links to Sandra’s books, visit her Amazon page here or visit other major online retailer sites.

How to contact Sandra:

Twitter: @SandraNikolai

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