COLUMBIA — Late last November, Laura McHugh finalized “The Weight of Blood,” a novel set in the Ozark Mountains that explores the modern consequences of human trafficking.
Her next step: shopping for agents to sell her suspense novel, anticipating a prolonged, tedious process.
“People always told me my first, second, even third novel would probably just go in a drawer,” McHugh said. “They weren’t being mean. Just realistic.”
Less than two weeks after looking for potential agents, McHugh, 38, accepted a major deal from Spiegel and Grau, a publishing imprint of Random House. The firm has handled books by financial writer Suze Orman and Yann Martel, author of "Life of Pi."
"The Weight of Blood" will be Spiegel and Grau's lead title of the spring 2014 season, McHugh said, giving it significant marketing muscle.
McHugh also said she has signed separate international deals in Italy, the United Kingdom, Holland and Germany.
“It hasn’t really sunk in yet,” she said. “I never thought this would happen to me.”
Murder in the Ozarks
McHugh's novel begins with the discovery of a woman dismembered and stuffed into a tree in the fictional Missouri town of Henbane.
The main character, Lucy, whose mother disappeared when she was a baby, becomes determined to solve the mystery. She discovers that the victim might have been the target of a backwoods human-trafficking ring in their Ozark hometown.
McHugh said the murder mystery was inspired by an actual incident in Lebanon, Mo., once a destination on Route 66.
Five men reportedly enslaved and tortured a mentally disabled woman, beginning in 2003 when she was 16. All five eventually pleaded guilty to lesser charges than sex trafficking.
Yet, McHugh said she was deeply unsettled by the case.
“It was absolutely horrific,” she said. “Things like that stick with you.”
The setting and characters in the novel were defined first, she said, but the story evolved organically. To keep herself organized, she created index cards for each scene of the book, including the characters, the action and the emotional and physical outcome.
“Once I started writing, the plot kind of changed,” McHugh said. “I still had the same beginning point and end point, but the middle changed."
Her agent, Sally Wofford-Girand, says the result is suspenseful from start to finish.
"From the first sentence, you're hooked," Wofford-Girand said. "And her novel maintains that power, that grip."
Sealing the deal
McHugh's novel took two years to complete, but the journey from manuscript to sale took less than two weeks.
On a Thursday night in early December, she emailed a query letter to potential literary agents and went to bed.
“When I woke up the next morning, I had all these requests for my manuscript,” she said, still with a touch of disbelief in her voice. “I thought, ‘Wow, this letter must have really worked.’”
She immediately sent her manuscript out to all the agents who requested it, thinking it would be a long wait.
On Saturday morning, an email dumbfounded her.
“An agent said she was already 50 pages in and quite taken by the novel,” McHugh said. “She said she’d get back to me within the next week or so.”
The next morning, Wofford-Girand offered representation.
“Her letter was confident, but she didn't oversell herself or the novel," the agent said. "Her novel more than delivered what she promised."
Wofford-Girand said she read the entire manuscript and decided it needed no revisions before sending it to editors.
"In the 20 years I've been in the business, I've never taken a book straight out of the pile and knew it was all ready to send to publishers the next day," she said. "This is incredibly rare."
She sent out 20 manuscripts on Tuesday, and 48 hours later, McHugh learned there would be an auction for the rights to her book.
“She was telling me, ‘I have emails from all over the world from people who love your book,’” McHugh said.
The auction took two days, and she ultimately accepted the offer from Random House.
“It was crazy,” she said. “It all happened so fast. It was a whirlwind.”
Always a writer at heart
Growing up, McHugh loved writing short stories and dreamed of becoming a writer.
She was born in Iowa and moved to Tecumseh in Ozark County when she was 7 years old.
While her family had no connections to the area, McHugh believes her father moved the family after surviving a heart attack because he needed the change.
"It was scary moving from Iowa to the Ozarks because it went from flat, open farmland to rugged wilderness," McHugh explained. "At the same time, I felt like an outsider."
She graduated from Truman State University in 1996 with a degree in English and an emphasis in creative writing.
“I had no idea what to do,” she said. “I knew I didn’t just want to be a writer. I wanted something more stable.”
She decided to go back to school and earned a master's degree in information science and learning technologies in 1999 from MU. A year later, she earned another bachelor's degree in computer science.
She worked as a software developer until 2009, when she was laid off in the middle of the national economic downturn.
“I thought, ‘Maybe someone’s trying to tell you something,’” McHugh said.
Her husband, Brent, encouraged her to start writing again, and she decided she had nothing to lose.
“Maybe if I hadn’t lost my job, I wouldn’t have started writing again as soon as I did,” McHugh said. “It’s turned out for the best.”
Successful author and mother
Now the mother of two girls, Harper, 6, and Piper, 3, she slides writing periods into the day when she can.
“I’d be working on my book, and I’d have one kid on my arm spilling juice on me and the other asking me to play with her,” McHugh said with a laugh. “I kind of gave up trying to get anything done around them.”
When she was working on her novel, a typical day started at 7 a.m., getting her children ready for school.
After dropping them off, she headed directly to the Columbia Public Library where she usually reserved Study Room 7 — her lucky room — to write until she picked up her younger daughter at 1.
At night, after putting the kids to bed and finishing housework, she returned to the book at 10 p.m. for another couple of hours.
McHugh said she gets her best writing done at night.
“I actually drink coffee late at night to keep me up,” she admitted. “It’s a lot like college in a way.”
Her goal in the beginning was to write two to three pages every day, which she stuck to religiously. Some days, though, she spent all her time undoing and redoing work she had completed the day before.
"Sometimes, I worked for hours and maybe would only finish one paragraph," she said. "But that's still good, because I know I'd have one solid paragraph to be proud of."
After finishing the first draft, she brought her novel to an informal writing group she belongs to. The women, who she says are extremely supportive, gave her constructive criticism and feedback, helping her continue the writing process.
“The real work of writing lies in rewriting,” she said.
Although the recent book deal has brought her a lot of attention, she said her friends and family continue to be supportive and treat her the same.
And to her children, she’s still just their mother.
“My kids don’t really realize what’s going on,” McHugh said. “They’ll be like, ‘Oh cool. Can I get a hamster?’”
Release set early next year
“The Weight of Blood” will be released in January or February 2014.
The book contracts with the United Kingdom and Holland included a second book, which McHugh has started. It’s set in a small river town in Iowa along the Mississippi River.
“Most of my writing is set in small Midwestern towns,” McHugh said. “I feel a lot of nostalgia for the region because I grew up in it.”
Although she said she’d never thank anyone for laying her off as a software developer, she’s grateful it was the push she needed.
“I don’t think I’ll be going back to an office job for the rest of my life,” she said with a smile.
Supervising editor is Jeanne Abbott.