The Big Idea: Steve McHugh
Author Steve McHugh was in the middle of writing a novel when his newest novel, The Last Raven, decided it needed to be written, instead. Follow along in his Big Idea to see how it started to take shape, and what it ended up becoming.
I wasn’t meant to write The Last Raven.
In 2020, I finished an urban fantasy story I’d started in 2012, consisting of 13 books across 3 series. It had been a lot of work done in a relatively short period of time. I was proud of my work, but I was done with urban fantasy—at least for now.
I was out of contract for the first time in ten years, a completed story behind me, and was utterly unsure what I was going to do next. I originally settled on an epic fantasy that I’d been working on for years.
My brain disagreed.
There are two parts of writing that over the years I’ve come to believe are important to actually getting anything done that’s worthwhile:
- Write what you love. If you don’t care about the book, why should anyone else?
- When you’re writing, your brain will tell you about the new shiny thing. Don’t ignore it, but don’t allow yourself to be sidetracked for too long.
After writing over a dozen books, these were rules that I found necessary to write.
I follow the first in everything I’ve ever written, but on this occasion, I ignored the second one completely.
I was writing my epic fantasy when my brain kept telling me about this new idea. I knew it was going to be urban fantasy, but apart from that, it was just an idea about a man who had been tasked with protecting the people he cared about. A man who had failed in that endeavor leaving him the only surviving member.
Lucas Rurik was the man’s name.
As I usually do, I made notes about the new shiny thing, meaning to get back to the book I’d been working on as soon as I’d gotten the new shiny thing out of my system.
A month later, I had 20,000 words written on The Last Raven, and had extensive notes on world building and character arcs. I had a spreadsheet detailing characters, places, magical abilities, anything I needed—trust me, it’s a lifesaver.
By this point I was officially all in. This was what I was going to work on: Lucas Rurik, a man who had died during The Second Punic War and had come back as something much more than human. One of the riftborn. The rift, a place of incredible power and beauty linked to our own world. These were the two central parts to the story I wanted to tell.
Lucas needed redemption more than revenge. He needed to feel like he was capable of doing the right thing. A man still confident of what he could do, but not confident that he could do it and keep people safe.
Lucas was, and don’t tell anyone else this because I get the impression that writers aren’t meant to find any part of writing easy, really easy to write. His story, his personality, they came quickly with very little hair pulling out on my part. It was like he’d always been in my brain and just needed the excuse.
The rift… well, the rift was different. It was a place where people all through history lived together in something approximating harmony. But it was also a place of great danger of monstrous creatures that roamed the lands, and very human desires for riches and power.
And Lucas could move between the rift and earth at will.
The rift required history, it required a story of its own, it was, in many ways, its own character. That was somewhat new to me. In previous books they’d also been set on earth, or in mythological realms that were known to many. Creating a place from scratch with thousands upon thousands of years of history, with its own religion, its own politics, its own currency, was… actually it was awesome.
But as I wrote more and more worldbuilding, it did something quite unexpected, it changed Lucas too. It was like pulling on one stretched the other. Relationships were forged, and broken, which in turn gave me more history about the rift, more places, more people. I’ve never quite had anything like that before with a person and a place. Normally it was a person’s relationship with other people, but this was that and also with a place.
I think at this point, I restarted the book with all the knowledge I now had about the people and world. About how they interacted with earth and the rift, about how the riftfused—anyone affected by the power of the rift—remained hidden from humans for so long, and why they had revealed themselves. About how that changed everything. There was so much new stuff that I’d worked on that restarting was necessary, if a little daunting.
Anyone who has ever gotten tens of thousands of words into a book and then restarted, knows the pain that decision comes with. But while it can be painful, from the ashes of that original story came The Last Raven, the first book in a series, and a story I loved to tell. And all that from an idea I’d originally dismissed. Turns out my muse—whatever that is—knew better.