Featured Mystery Author  

Angel on Her Shoulder
An Interview with Mystery Author
Mignon F. Ballard
By Joyce Dixon

 

Doesn't everyone need a guardian angel?  Award-winning author Mignon Ballard created her own as Augusta Goodnight.  This whimsical angel learned first aid from Florence Nightingale and horticulture from Luther Burbank.  This guardian angel cleans like Merry Maids and cooks like Julia Childs. Plus, this angel rides shotgun as the heroine solves the mystery.

That should give you an idea of the capricious creativity taking place inside Mignon Ballard's mind.  She thrives on blending humor and suspense in her southern mysteries.   

Augusta Goodnight is definitely An Angel to Die For.  She cooks, cleans, and organizes Prentice's home.  Sounds like a writer's real life dream for sure.  How was guardian angel Augusta Goodnight created?

Augusta came as the answer to the first thing I ask myself when beginning a mystery: "What if?" My first protagonist, Mary George Murphy, was in a terrible fix, and there seemed to be no way out. But WHAT IF she had a guardian angel? Augusta is the sister, neighbor and friend I think most women would love to have around. As a sidekick sleuth, she doesn't solve the mystery or tell the protagonist what went wrong in her life, but guides her in subtle (or not-so-subtle) ways such as an item left in plain view, a violin played off-key, the scent of strawberries, an offhand suggestion. I combined qualities I admire: quick wit, common sense, loyalty, compassion, and appreciation of simple pleasures to create an angel who brought along a few traits of her own. Augusta is always ready to eat, quick to laugh, and can't pass a mirror without a surreptitious glance. When she leaves my protagonist at the end of the book, she leaves a bit of herself with both of us.

In An Angel to Die For, you blended in southern humor, added a touch of eccentrics, and mixed in traditional southern themes of family and place.  What influenced your style, and how would you describe your voice?

I grew up in a small town in Georgia (Calhoun) at a time when you knew just about everyone and I heard stories coming and going. I'm like a teabag steeped in Southern brew, and I don't know how else to write. I was born during the depression, and World War II took up most of my childhood. People had to laugh to keep going. This influenced me, I think, along with the patterns of speech and the tales they told. For instance, my maiden name is Franklin, and when I complained of my looks, my daddy would remind me that "The Lord spake and said unto Moses, 'All the Franklins shall have big noses!'" (It didn't help, of course!)

My voice, I hope, is the voice of any woman who is faced with loss, grief, fear, and/or loneliness but is willing to face her demons when Augusta offers her services. I can't identify with a wishy-washy, spineless protagonist or one with no sense of humor. She wouldn't be worth Augusta's time or the reader's.
 

All of your mysteries are set in the South.  What elements of the region make it a good choice for the genre?

What elements don't? The colorful speech, the variety of the people and the landscape, the rich heritage, and the emotions that simmer within us. Many families have lived here for generations. For the most part they are gracious and outgoing, but deep inside old resentments stew and steam. Secrets begat secrets, and eventually something erupts. Also Southerners feel strongly about just about everything...and we're rarely wrong. Just ask us!
 

How has the angel series been received and how many do you plan to write?

The series has received enthusiastic reviews, has been selected by Detective Book Club, published in large print, and Berkley will bring out the first angel in paperback next Feb. I've received a lot of positive feedback from readers of ANGEL AT TROUBLESOME CREEK, and have just signed a contract for SHADOW OF AN ANGEL, the third in the series. I hope to write about Augusta as long as people want to read about her. The series appeals to readers who enjoy a good mystery without a lot of graphic sex, violence, or foul language. (Augusta gets on her "high horse" about that.) Of course my victims are just as dead!

 
How did your childhood influence your choice of career and genre?

I was born two days before Halloween, lived across the street from a funeral home, and loved to tell ghost stories with my sister and her friends on the steps of a marble mausoleum in the town cemetery. (We brought our own peanut butter sandwiches.) I loved being scared as long as I knew home and Mama were only a few minutes away.

My mother and grandmother wrote verse and my great grandmother wrote a novel (never published). My parents read to me and were great storytellers. My mother illustrated her warnings about sticking your arm out the car window, playing on the railroad tracks, standing by an open window during electrical storms, etc. by repeating stories of people she knew who had done these things. Mama knew a lot of unfortunate people. I also had the good fortune to have good teachers and small classes. I went all the way through 12 grades of school with the same people. (But don't ask any of them about me because it isn't true!)


Where do you go for inspiration in your mysteries?

If I read something in a newspaper or hear a story I think I might incorporate into a mystery, I make note of it. Writing is like piecing a quilt. A snatch of song might inspire me, an old letter, an epitaph on a gravestone, an abandoned house, even a name. I weave then together into what I hope is a suspenseful, sometimes-funny, and believable story. What is my character doing here and what influences have these things had on her life? I especially like to write about things that happened in the past. I like to right old wrongs.

With a degree in Journalism from UGA, what skills did you learn that you find helpful in writing mysteries?

I learned to put the important things up front, to hook my readers as soon as possible and lead them into the story by the most direct route. I learned not to be redundant, to avoid cliches and adverbs, use adjectives sparingly, and be choosy about my verbs. From my high school English teacher I learned to shudder and screech when somebody says, "most unique." (Thank you. Miss Legg!)

Having won the Styles Award from the Agatha Christie Society, what advice would you give to writers on finding their own style and voice?

The Styles Award got its name, I believe, from Christie's first published mystery, "The Mysterious Affair at Styles," but Agatha Christie and her style had a great influence on me. After I got too old for Nancy Drew, I moved up to Christie and fell in love with the village life and the English countryside. From Christie I learned that even the most peaceful and picturesque place can harbor dark secrets and be a catalyst for murder.

And why not set one in the small town South? Eventually I did. My first editor, Margaret Norton, was Agatha Christie's American editor, and I always wished some of that magic would rub off on me.

I think every writer should use the voice they feel most comfortable with. You just have to experiment. It's not a bad idea to write a few pages or even a chapter or so from different viewpoints to see which suits you best. I write some books in first person and some in third, but I usually stick with the subjective one-person viewpoint because I like to "be" that character. I am trying to work up the courage to use multiple points of view, and have even started a novel using this technique. One day I'm going to finish it!  


Books by Mignon F. Ballard

An Angel to Die For, Minotaur Books, 2000.

Angel at Troublesome Creek, Minotaur Books, 1999.

Minerva Cries Murder, Carroll & Graf, 1993.

Final Curtain, Carroll & Graf, 1992.

The Widow's Woods, Carroll & Graf, 1991.

Deadly Promise, Dodd Mead, 1986.

Cry at Dusk, Dodd Mead, 1987.

Raven Rock, Dodd Mead, 1986.

Aunt Matilda's Ghost, A Silver Dagger Mystery Reprint Edition, 2000.


2000 Joyce Dixon, All Rights Reserved