The Japanese Tsunami, shark attacks and the sinking of the Titanic – best-selling author Lauren Tarshis has written about them all in her hugely-popular “I Survived” book series.
During a recent PTA-sponsored visit to meet with Todd fourth and fifth graders, she shared her writing process, which involves extensive research. She also shared with the students how she overcame her writing insecurities, as well as how a world-famous author inspired her to keep writing.
“All of my books take about one year to write and require a huge amount of research to get the information I need,” she told the students. “The research helps me make the stories realistic. For example, when I wrote the book “I Survived the Shark Attacks of 1916,” I needed to know things like, what did the beaches look like? What did people wear?”
Tarshis read about the shark attacks in 1916 and learned that most people in 1916 didn’t even know how to swim.
“I wanted my fictional characters to be realistic so I asked myself ‘how does it feel to actually get bitten by a shark?’ I wanted to give the reader a clear feeling,” she said. “But you can’t find that on Google.”
Tarshis reached out to a survivor of a shark attack and interviewed him. He described the attack and told her it felt like someone took big nails and hammered them into his bone.
“If you read the paragraph in my book about my fictional character, it is pretty much what that guy told me,” she said.
According to Tarshis, while research is helpful, it can also be time-consuming.
“It is almost like writing two books, because I have to read books just to do the research and write down information, before I can start writing my own book,” she said.
Tarshis shared that in addition to reading she visits museums and talks to experts.
“I also visit every place that I write about. That is where the non-fiction and my imagination come together,” she said. “I love to visit places and meet people who had connections to the events.”
One of her books is about the 1988 blizzard in South Dakota, where school children were stuck at school together with teachers during an icy blizzard.
“I met with the granddaughter of one of the survivors and I used similar stories in my book to what she told me. Those stories helped bring my characters to life,” she said.
Tarshis shared that she was nervous before the meeting with the students at Todd because meeting them reminded her of herself when she was their age. She shared that she had reading struggles during her childhood and that she was embarrassed to admit it and hid this secret for many years.
She also shared how she began writing professionally and how a meeting with J.K. Rowling inspired her to keep writing when she thought she was not good enough. According to Tarshis, Rowling had told her that a person has to write at least two bad books before they succeed. (Tarshis hilariously reenacted the entire meeting, with herself playing the role of J.K. Rowling and a student playing her).
She ended the visit by sharing her next book that she is working on: The most powerful earthquake in America, which took place in Alaska in 1964.
Students also had the opportunity to ask her questions.
One student asked why so many of the stories she writes about are sad. Tarshis replied that the events that she writes about provide a chance for her characters to grow and change.
The visit to Todd was Tarshis’s first in-person visit to a school since the pandemic.
“It has been wonderful to see that especially at a place like Briarcliff, there is so much resilience among the students and teachers, and to see the joy and enthusiasm,” she said. “I did lots of zoom classes almost every day during the pandemic, but there is nothing like coming into the schools in person.”
Tarshis is grateful for the opportunity to visit schools because visiting in-person provides her with inspiration.
“Visiting schools is where an author like me can get inspired, because it is a privilege to see how my books mean something to teachers and students,” she said. “To hear the students’ questions and ideas is such a critical part of the entire writing process for me.”