My guest this month is the delightful Margaret C. Morse, author of mystery, suspense and urban fantasy novels and stories, animal lover, and retired attorney who lives in Phoenix, Arizona, with her husband Duane and a pack of rescue dogs. Before she quit to become a full-time writer, Margaret worked as an attorney for the Maricopa County (Arizona) Public Defender’s Office, handling cases in adult and juvenile court. Margaret used her experience as a criminal defense attorney to create her protagonist, lawyer Petra Rakowitz, who turns into a witch during her first murder case. When not fashioning a magic world, Margaret enjoys cooking, gardening, and bird watching. What a wonderful tale, to go from the world of criminal law to magical realism!
Me and My Imaginary Friends
I inherited storytelling from my mother, the daughter of Polish immigrants who settled in North Portal, Saskatchewan. One strong memory from childhood is how Mom explained the death of her father. Michael Skoczylas, a railroad worker and the grandfather I never met, got a splinter in his finger. Mom detailed the way this small wound grew worse, turning his finger red and swollen. Then the poison spread up his arms in bulging red streaks. Those tainted streams of blood attacked Grandpa. They flowed into his heart and made it stop beating. The effect of this oft-told story was to make me deathly afraid of splinters in my finger. If I can’t remove the offending sliver, I immediately imagine red streams of poison rushing to my heart.
When I was around twelve, Dad responded to this story by asking Mom, “Ann, don’t you think you should tell her your father died of leukemia?” For some reason, this explanation was less scary to me than an infected splinter wound. I don’t blame Mom for not wanting to talk about leukemia, because in those days you didn’t say words like cancer or leukemia. The power of storytelling, not the scientific truth, hit me at an early age.
During my school years, the family moved six times, which meant I grew up without a hometown. Each move required finding a new set of friends. The one constant comment from teachers was “Margaret is a nice girl, but is very shy and does not make friends easily.” Being shy is not a crime. To fill the void of loneliness I had imaginary friends and invented fantasy worlds. I also loved to read and live in other people’s worlds. Favorites included Black Beauty, Little House on the Prairie, Peter Pan, Little Women, Tom Swift Jr, and the Hardy Boys. Around age thirteen, I discovered and loved detective fiction, especially Rex Stout, Ellery Queen, Agatha Christie, and Dorothy Sayers.
My imaginary friends and fantasy worlds let me escape. My favorite pretend story reinvented me as an orphan whose “parents” hid the secret of my royal birth. I burned with schemes to be the queen, but no one acknowledged me. Though I had happy times in childhood, I continually plotted getaways to private secret gardens. At this point, I didn’t yet write down my dreams.
Naturally, with this background, at the University of Maryland I majored in English with a specialty in Creative Writing. Don’t worry, I won’t inflict on you the self-indulgent poems of this era. Loving literature, I snagged a fellowship at the University of Arizona and pursued a Master’s Degree. I had so much fun I plunged ahead and qualified to write a doctoral dissertation. However, I bogged down in the flower imagery of Alfred Lord Tennyson.
Uncertain about this topic and doubtful about getting a job teaching, I looked for another career. Law school emerged as the path to a decent paying job. My brother was a lawyer, so he served as an example. I didn’t stop to think I don’t like to argue. As an aside, I’ll confess during this time I researched material for a Victorian or Edwardian detective story but never wrote a word. From my fantasy world, I selected as the heroine a shy bookish girl as Sherlock Holmes’ assistant.
How lucky I felt to be accepted into Arizona State’s Law School. Let’s just say law school forever cured me of going to graduate school. Unlike English professors who could convince me to love Milton, law school professors don’t seek to inspire students. Managing to graduate and pass the bar, I started work at the Maricopa County Public Defender’s Office. For twenty-five years, I represented people charged with everything from murder to shoplifting and facing punishments from the death penalty to time served. When I had leisure to dream, I was Perry Mason crushing the prosecutor.
As an attorney, I did some writing and was lucky enough to get first place two years in a row for a short story contest put on by Arizona Attorney. A nice thrill, but not the best-selling novel I surely had in me.
Once retired, I learned about writing through classes and conferences. Fortune favored me with James Sallis as a writing teacher. Recently I heard him speak, and these words of his struck me: we don’t just write stories; we recreate experience.
For several years, I struggled with a crime fiction novel about a woman who is touched by magic and suddenly turns into a witch. This experience forever changes her. Write what you know, so my protagonist was always a woman lawyer. I’m intrigued by the experience of having to reinvent oneself, because I had to struggle with new identities as a scholar, a lawyer, and a writer.
Including the paranormal fit right in with my love of creating dream worlds. As I developed the Petra Rakowitz series, I found authors who rocked this genre: the urban fantasy of Jim Butcher and the adventures of Harry Potter. Most important, fantasy let me expand the boundaries of the everyday.
Luck was with me, and I had a real publisher for my first two books in the Petra Rakowitz series, Murder Casts a Spell and Murder Lifts the Spirits. Then the crushing blow came when the publisher dropped me because sales were not “stellar.” Devastated, I blamed myself for not promoting the books enough. Is it a consolation that publishers dump other writers? Not really, I’d rather not know the deep stab of rejection.
After some moping, I reinvented myself once more, this time as an indie publisher. I redid the covers of the first two books and put them out with a third in the series, Murder Hexes the Reunion, in 2022. During this new phase, my tribe of writers kept me going. We complain, celebrate, and critique to create a shared world of ups and downs. Why do I keep writing? My imaginary friends demand that I bring them to life in print. Once they appear in a story, they surprise me by taking over the plot and making it better. That’s magic!
Check out Margaret’s website at http://margaretcmorse.com