Imaginary Friends by Wendy Hornsby

A young Wendy Hornsby with her imaginary purseWhen I was a very little girl, I had a just-pretend friend and a just-pretend purse. I have no idea what the friend looked like, but the purse was pink and shiny and I carried it with the handle over my forearm, elbow bent at ninety degrees, the way Queen Elizabeth carries her handbag. One day we – Mom, my sister and brother and I – met my aunt and my cousins at the Owl Drugstore in Montrose for lunch. There were six kids altogether, and the oldest was probably all of seven, so there was a lot of distracting activity at the Owl lunch counter that day. It wasn’t until afterward, when we were walking away down Honolulu Avenue, that my just-pretend friend noticed that I had left my just-pretend purse behind. Who knows what was in the purse that day – it always held exactly what I wanted it to – but it must have been quite valuable because I set up a big enough fuss that Mom, no indulgent pushover she, walked me all the way back to retrieve it. 

At some point the purse and the friend, whose name and description morphed as needed, were left behind. But as I think about it, all of my life I have made up people and things and put them into stories.  It must have been a relief to everyone around me when I was old enough to write down my imaginary people and their adventures instead of walking around with them and, from time to time, forgetting them at the odd lunch counter. 

Maggie MacGowen is my longest-running imaginary friend; our first book together, Telling Lies, was published in 1992. Because I get to make her up, Maggie hasn’t aged much during the twenty years and seven adventures since. Or gained weight, or lost her chutzpah; never mind about me, I’m only her enabler.  Maggie is an investigative filmmaker, a muckraker for the video age. She is very independent, tough, tender, and occasionally lusty, and she is brave to the extent that she is occasionally reckless as she sets out to thwart injustice and save the world, captured on film, of course.

The Maggie MacGowen books are considered hard-boiled because of the mean streets our protagonist walks down and the perils that she overcomes, both physically and emotionally. But what do I know of the mean streets?  By day I am a professor of history.  I can talk with you about millennia of murderous, odious malefaction that emerged out of the dark recesses of the human soul, but, to tell you the truth – and don’t hate me – I’ve led a fairly sheltered life.  Daily, as a writer, I curse my parents for being so loving and supportive. 

To write Maggie’s stories, to imagine her within their milieus, I needed to get out of the library, out of my little world, to walk her turf, talk with people who would be involved in her fictional crimes and their perps. Doing research for the books is nearly as much fun for me as writing them. 

Every book begins with an actual event that gets embroidered into a plot populated by whole communities of just-pretend people based on people I have met or observed. For the books, for you, to get things right, I went to Skid Row at midnight, coursed the streets of South Central in the wake of the 1992 riots, talked with survivors and convicts, went to jail – a visitor – rode along with the police, hung out with D.A.s, took the Cook’s tour of the LA County morgue, followed a murder case from “wet spot” to death penalty, and so on. God I loved it. The bits and pieces I gleaned from those endeavors give verisimilitude to the stories and their people. I have learned so much about the real world that I would not have if I had stayed in my little ivory tower.

By the way, Maggie does not carry a shiny pink purse. Hardly her style. Instead she carries a “bag” that is never described but that, like the purse I left on the lunch counter at the Owl Drugstore, always seems to have exactly that thing the Maggie needs at the moment, from gaffer’s tape (duct tape) to video cameras. And occasionally a handy firearm. It’s fiction, right? The product of imagination.       

Wendy Hornsby is the Edgar Award-winning creator of the Maggie MacGowen series. The picture at the top of this post is a young Wendy--with her imaginary purse. has published seven of her novels, which you can find at this link

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