When Laura (Runge) McHugh (’96) was first laid off a few years ago, she never imagined she could pursue her dream job as a writer. Yet, after encouragement from her husband, and many long hours of writing, she has found success with her first novel, “The Weight of Blood.”
McHugh graduated from Truman with a degree in English and an emphasis in creative writing. However, as a first-generation college student with a blue-collar background, she wanted what she felt was a stable job with a steady income. She went on to earn her master’s degree in information science and learning technologies from the University of Missouri, along with a second bachelor’s degree in computer science.
“I didn’t have a safety net and that definitely influenced my decision to enter a technical field instead of further pursuing my creative interests,” McHugh said.
After she lost her job as a software developer, her husband pushed her to stay at home with the kids and gave her a laptop to squeeze in extra writing time. McHugh spent the next few years making long lists and color-coded index cards to organize her thoughts, writing on the couch after the kids had gone to bed.
The storyline for “The Weight of Blood” is set in an isolated Ozark mountain town. Plagued by the disappearance of both her mother and her friend, 17-year-old Lucy Dane is determined to unravel the tangle of secrets surrounding her.
After living in the Ozarks for several years, McHugh was fascinated by the folklore and culture of tight-knit rural communities. Even though there are small parts of her in every character, McHugh specifically identifies with Lucy’s stage of life and moral dilemmas. She drew further inspiration for the story from a sex-trafficking case in Lebanon, Mo.
“I explored that small-town dynamic in the novel, where secrets and loyalties cause people to blind themselves to the terrible things happening in their midst,” McHugh said.
While pitching her book to potential agents, McHugh was not initially successful. Her first query letter generated little response, forcing her to try again. During her second attempt, she emphasized her personal connection to the Ozarks and tried to evoke the mood better by comparing it to titles like “Bloodroot” and “Winter’s Bone.”
“I knew I had to write a letter that would convince agents to read the manuscript,” McHugh said. “I spent a lot of time revising until I thought the letter would do its job. Luckily, it did.”
Since its release in March, much of McHugh’s time this spring has been dedicated to the book’s publicity tour. “The Weight of Blood” has so far appeared in places like Southern Living, Entertainment Weekly, Oprah.com and the Indie Next list. Her second novel is under contract and she hopes to begin a third book soon.
McHugh lives in Columbia, Mo., with her husband and their two daughters. Ironically, the career path she feared would not provide stability is now her full-time pursuit. She hopes to continue with her dream job and encourages other aspiring writers to do the same.
“Connect with other writers in your community or online. Find critique partners who will give you honest feedback. And finish that manuscript!” McHugh said.