When I tell Megan Miranda, “I was in the woods yesterday and I thought of you,” the bestselling author laughs (rather than being creeped out) and says, “I love it!”
That’s because, as her millions of fans know, Miranda likes to have her characters spend quality time among the trees. From her New York Times bestseller The Last House Guest and 2020’s The Girl From Widow Hills to her newest book, Such a Quiet Place, the liminal beauty of the forest—quiet and light-dappled by day, shadowy and ominous by night—helps set the tone for Miranda’s tense psychological thrillers. As she explains in a call to the North Carolina home she shares with her husband and two children, “I’m so inspired by settings in the woods, near water, in the mountains. There’s so much atmosphere in those types of places.”
In a wonderful 2016 Medium essay titled “Writing the Woods,” Miranda described the woods as “a place where it’s possible to believe in magic. In the myths. In monsters. Even if, all along, there was only you.” That sentiment, with its appreciation for the unknowability of nature and its parallels to the human soul, is a key element of Such a Quiet Place, which is set at the edge of a forested lake in a lovely upper-middle-class community called Hollow’s Edge.
A map at the beginning of the book offers an aerial view of one particular crescent-shaped street dotted with 10 close-set homes and a community pool. Looking at the map, it’s easy to imagine residents gathering poolside for hangouts or parties, dragging a kayak through the woods and down to the sparkling water, or strolling along the street chatting to one another in the evening air.
All of those things do happen in Hollow’s Edge, to be sure, but not nearly as much as they used to. Fourteen months ago, 25-year-old Ruby Fletcher left the neighborhood to begin her 20-year prison sentence for murdering married couple Brandon and Fiona Truett, a conviction aided by speculation and testimony from her neighbors. From their perspectives, Ruby never really fit in (she was younger, a renter rather than an owner, comfortable with being disliked), so the notion of her criminality didn’t completely surprise them.
But since Ruby’s departure, the residents have felt trapped. Tainted by the specter of the terrible murders, they’re unable to sell their houses or avoid the empty Truett house, which is a looming reminder that evil lurks among them despite their security cameras, neighborhood watch program and the popular Hollow’s Edge Owners Association Message Board.
"The crime is done, the person is convicted, what happens next?”
Miranda cleverly punctuates her story with excerpts from this forum, dispatches that range from informative to petty to provocative. “I thought it would be a really interesting way to show the undercurrents of each character, the things they’re not saying face-to-face but that are still apparent,” she says.
This is a hallmark of Miranda’s thrillers: exploring the positive and negative aspects of something, then pushing the negative to its extreme. For the residents of Hollow’s Edge, the message board was a helpful resource—until it became a key force in Ruby’s false conviction.
Ruby has only served 14 months of her sentence when the courts determine that her “trials had been tainted, the investigation deemed unfair, the verdict thrown out,” says the novel’s narrator, Ruby’s former frenemy and housemate, Harper Nash. Just as this news has begun to circulate, Ruby suddenly materializes in Hollow’s Edge, moving back into the house with Harper, charmingly insouciant as ever and bent on, well, nobody’s really sure what.
“The whole story of Such a Quiet Place begins as aftermath: The crime is done, the person is convicted, what happens next?” Miranda says of this deliciously nerve-fraying premise. “When Ruby pulls up on the street again, there’s no illusion of safety anymore. . . . I was struck with the idea of [Ruby] knowing that the neighborhood had contributed to her conviction. She chooses, of all places, to come back [to Hollow’s Edge]. It creates a really tense dynamic throughout the entire neighborhood.”
Ruby’s return also spurs an important question: Is she the victim, or is she the perpetrator? There are two possible answers, and neither one is good. “If she’s guilty, there’s a killer still in the neighborhood, and if she’s not, the killer has always been there in the neighborhood,” Miranda says. “[The residents] have to reevaluate all the steps that got them there, their relationship with her and their interpretation of events.”
This is, of course, the opposite of relaxing at a time of year usually beloved in Hollow’s Edge: summer break from the College of Lake Hollow, where nearly everyone in town is employed. “Even though you’re at home, these are people who know you from a professional setting,” Miranda says. “There’s really no hiding from each other.” And when the neighborhood’s insider versus outsider designation can turn on a change of mood or a perceived slight, socializing becomes an even stickier proposition.
As Such a Quiet Place unfolds bit by unsettling bit over the course of just 11 pivotal days—June 29 through July 9, with a much-anticipated Fourth of July celebration smack-dab in the middle—the neighborhood’s convivial closeness that was once a source of pride curdles into something much darker. It’s a whodunit with lots of plausible suspects simmering away in a pressure cooker of summer heat and increasing paranoia.
Harper realizes that, in the wake of Ruby’s surprise return, she’s being excluded from gatherings, and side-eyed by her neighbors. But she’s afraid to insist that Ruby move out—just in case she really is a dangerous murderer. Anonymous threatening notes with frustratingly cryptic messages only compound her distress. Who’s been watching her, and what do they want?
As the neighbors grow increasingly anxious and indignant about the prospect of encountering Ruby on the street or even at the big Fourth of July party (something that queen-bee HOA leader Charlotte Brock does not want to happen), their polite masks begin to slip, and their true essences begin to peek through. Nature, too, erodes in parallel. “The hidden edges of the shore had slowly been revealed, the roots and mud and dirt and debris,” Harper observes.
Harper’s tendency toward timidity and self-doubt makes her an especially interesting unreliable narrator in an insidiously unstable environment. Often, characters like Ruby take the lead in thrillers, their unrepentant and unpredictable natures placing them front and center. Here, though, people-pleasing Harper filters the goings-on through her lived experience and complicated feelings about the neighborhood.
This creates an immersive reading experience that sometimes gets frustrating when Harper doesn’t stand up for herself—and extremely tense when she decides to try out some sneaky, possibly ill-advised detective-like maneuvers. Harper’s various calculations and adventures inevitably and messily overlap with those of the other characters, offering lots of plot trails for readers to follow and theorize about.
To keep track of these myriad threads, Miranda uses spreadsheets, mapping out plots and keeping track of clues. “It’s my methodical approach to writing thrillers,” she says. This penchant for columns and rows may hark back to her past experiences in the sciences. After graduating from MIT, Miranda worked in a laboratory setting at several biotech companies and taught high school science for a few years, too.
Despite this background, Miranda doesn’t consider her transition to fiction writing to be a sharp turn but rather “a completely natural progression, a continuation of things I’ve loved my entire life,” she says. “I’ve always loved reading mysteries and thrillers and consuming stories in all their formats. . . . I also love science and never felt those were opposing parts of me.”
Miranda’s first published books were YA novels, some of which (like Soulprint and Come Find Me) included scientific aspects “inspired by what-if scenarios.” That what-if inquisitiveness has proven indispensable to writing adult thrillers, as well. An experiment is a step-by-step process with many variables, Miranda explains, just like “steps in the process of telling a story. That mindset definitely helps with my [writing] process.”
Miranda also maintains a bright-line boundary between work and the rest of her life to ensure that she’s able to fully inhabit the minds of her narrators. “It lets me get really deep into a story, which is important to my writing in first person,” she says. “I dive in with a character and build up the premise and discover things as I write. . . . I do surprise myself sometimes.”
Certainly, there are surprises in Such a Quiet Place from start to finish—from seemingly minor to decidedly deadly. “I love those little shifts of perspective!” Miranda says. “I try to [include] them in my books throughout the story, those elements that change the way you see things.”
It’s just that sort of unsteady ground, destabilized by trepidation and doubt, that moves beneath the Hollow’s Edge community as its story comes to a shocking conclusion. Miranda says she likes to “channel [my characters’] uncertainty,” and she does that to fine effect while challenging readers to cast a more critical eye on their own neighborhoods. Perhaps that’s a good way to pass the time until her next thriller, which is sure to have plenty of trees for characters to appreciate (and maybe even lurk behind).
Author photo by Magen Marie Photography.