Megan Miranda's new summer mystery thriller book Megan Miranda's latest summer thriller, The Last to Vanish, is set in a small hiking town in North Carolina, where 7 people have disappeared in the woods. Were they all accidents or was it something more sinister?

How do you write a captivating thriller? This author found clues in the woods

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AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Mystery author Megan Miranda is out with a new thriller. It's called "The Last To Vanish" and takes readers to a small hiking town in North Carolina located alongside the Appalachian Trail. There, seven people have disappeared in the woods over the last 25 years. Were they all accidents, hikers doomed by nature, or was it something more sinister? NPR's Elissa Nadworny laced up her hiking boots and headed into the woods with the author to bring us this profile.

MEGAN MIRANDA: We're in for kind of an adventure today.

ELISSA NADWORNY, BYLINE: OK.

MIRANDA: Are you game? You're game.

NADWORNY: I'm game. Yes, I'm excited.

We're heading to the trailhead just outside Charlotte, N.C., near Megan Miranda's home.

MIRANDA: Right here, it kind of overlooks a little creek area, which...

NADWORNY: It's recently rained, so the air is thick. The dark green trees are glistening, and there are patches of mud along the trail.

MIRANDA: Everything is so green and lush and you can't really see past, like, 20 feet.

NADWORNY: It's the kind of place that's become a hallmark of a Megan Miranda thriller. She's written more than a dozen. And nature, the deep woods, a steep trail, a fast-moving waterfall is often a central, sometimes menacing character.

MIRANDA: You step inside the woods and it feels like legends can almost be real, right? Like, it's a place where things are hidden, but also you can hide. And it changes so much. So I feel like it's just so great for thriller settings in general, too.

NADWORNY: Growing up, her mom was an avid mystery book reader who brought Miranda to the library once a week. She'd leave holding a stack of books. Nancy Drew was an early favorite, but also "Hatchet," "Where The Red Fern Grows," "Bridge To Terabithia." She says she's always loved books that had an element of wilderness to them. And from an early age, she was fascinated by the idea that nature could be both beautiful and terrifying.

MIRANDA: My grandparents had this cabin in the Poconos, and I used to love to go stay there. And, you know, this was before cellphones, and there was no, you know, phone line. And in the daytime, it was like this great adventure. And then at nighttime, I would just kind of be, like, staring out into the night like, what could be out there?

NADWORNY: The first mysteries she uncovered were in science. She worked in biotech after college. Then she was a high school science teacher when she first moved here to North Carolina. The question of the unknown, the what ifs, drove her to try writing thrillers.

What actually scares you?

MIRANDA: I have an overactive imagination, so I am afraid of many things. Like, the woods at night, definitely, fear of the unknown. I feel like so much of people's fears has to do with the unknown, of what can happen.

NADWORNY: She's especially afraid of being alone in the woods, feeling vulnerable, on edge.

MIRANDA: The idea that you hear footsteps behind you and you can't see it and they stop when you stop. Like, that to me is this terrifying idea.

NADWORNY: When a hair on the back of your neck stands up and you feel the tension in your shoulders, the sharp focus on just getting to safety - that's the feeling Miranda is trying to capture in her books. Much of where we're hiking is wetlands. We pass a pond filled with frogs. The recent rain has made the path muddy, and I noticed Miranda is deep in thought, her writing brain spinning. Spending time in the woods can do that to you.

MIRANDA: Even right now, I was like, you know, what would this be like to run on when it's a little muddier, right?

NADWORNY: Wait, so are you always thinking about running away?

MIRANDA: (Laughter) I'm not. But since you asked me the question of what makes me afraid, now I have that on my mind.

NADWORNY: (Laughter) Like, where could I get out of this woods quickly?

MIRANDA: Right. Yes.

NADWORNY: Getting out of the woods quickly is a thing she's been researching. Her latest book, "The Last To Vanish," centers around hiking in North Carolina. It's about a town haunted by its past and all the hikers who disappeared there.

MIRANDA: I was doing a hike just like this, and it had just finished raining, kind of like here. But inside the woods, it still sounded like it was. You know, you're walking, and it's falling from the trees still. And I kind of took out my phone right then and started making notes. It reminded me of this idea of, like, echoes of the past and a town where, you know, everything they're seeing are things that already happened. And I went home and, like, started writing immediately.

NADWORNY: That seed of an idea turned into a much more complex web. The main character, a young woman named Abby, is an outsider who moved to the small town a decade ago. She works at the inn at the base of the mountain, the last place so many hikers were seen alive.

MIRANDA: (Reading) He arrived at night in the middle of a downpour, the type of conditions more suitable for her disappearance.

NADWORNY: Back in Miranda's home office, I asked her to read from the new book.

MIRANDA: (Reading) I was alone in the lobby, removing the hand-carved walking sticks from the barrel behind the registration desk, replacing them with a stash of sleek navy umbrellas when someone pushed through one of the double doors at the entrance. The sound of rain cascading over the gutters, the rustle of hiking pants, the screech of wet boots on polished floors. A man stood just inside as the door fell shut behind him with nothing but a black raincoat and some sob story about his camping plans. Nothing to be afraid of - the weather, a hiker.

NADWORNY: In this room where she writes, there's elements of the new book everywhere. Leaning against a bookshelf, there are the hiking sticks she and her husband got on a trip to the Smoky Mountains. Hung up around her desk, there are pictures of her and her family hiking.

MIRANDA: So this is how I write my books.

NADWORNY: She points to a stack of Excel spreadsheets piled on her desk.

MIRANDA: I don't have a murder wall. No, it's all on just a little piece of paper.

NADWORNY: The spreadsheets have columns with dates and plot points, major turning points.

MIRANDA: And then this is "The Last To Vanish."

NADWORNY: And most importantly, lists of clues.

MIRANDA: Try not to give any spoilers. Here's a clue that a window is left open in a cabin, you know? And I remember writing that and thinking like, is that something I will use, or is that something I won't use?

NADWORNY: Now, it's not giving away too much, but that open window - it ends up being pretty important. As we're sitting in her office reading through clues...

MIRANDA: There is a piece of glass stuck between her toes. There's blood in the hall, but nowhere else.

NADWORNY: ...I can't help thinking back to how Megan Miranda is seemingly afraid of most things.

You said you scare really easily.

MIRANDA: Yes.

NADWORNY: But you read a lot of thrillers.

MIRANDA: Right.

NADWORNY: You write thrillers.

MIRANDA: I do.

NADWORNY: Square that for me.

MIRANDA: Right. I think it's almost a - not to say a safe way to explore, but it is like you're taking a journey through and you know you're making it through the other side. And there is, like, a comforting element of taking that journey and relief at the end of it.

NADWORNY: Unlike in life, the murders, the mysteries, they have a resolution, an answer or explanation. It's really the safest way to feel scared.

Elissa Nadworny, Davidson, N.C.

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