Writer's historical tome has basis in family ties

Writing historical fiction novels with a legal twist was never something Solana Beach resident Ona Russell imagined doing. The material found her - literally.

Before her death, Russell's mother-in-law gifted her a collection of old scrapbooks filled with meticulously organized newspaper clippings about Russell's grandfather-in-law, O'Brien O'Donnell, a prominent judge in 1920s Ohio.

"It was a researcher's dream," Russell, who holds a doctorate in 19th century literature from University of California, San Diego. "If it hadn't been for that, I doubt whether I would have ever written the first book."

And if "O'Brien's Desk" had not been published in 2004, Russell likely would not be releasing her second historical mystery "The Natural Selection."

In "The Natural Selection," sleuth Sarah Kaufman travels to Dayton, Tennessee where the trial of the century is underway, the Scopes "Monkey" trial.

Set against the courtroom debate of evolution versus creationism, Kaufman unravels the murder of a college professor thanks to the help of H.L. Mencken, a journalist covering the trial.

Writing about the Scopes trial was an indirect result of many interests converging, Russell explained.

She was already entrenched in the 1920s era from researching "O'Brien's Desk," so the 1925 Scopes trial was a quick jump in the pages of history.

Since college, Russell was fascinated by the similarities of storytelling in literature and the courtroom. (She later developed and taught a "Literature and the Law" course at UCSD extension.)

And, she is intrigued by the debate over evolution versus creationism that still continues today.

"Even though we've come a long way," Russell said, "we still have people adamantly anti-science, who don't believe in evolution, who don't accept it's possible to be a spiritual person and still believe in science."

Through her research, Russell found the 1920s have more in common with 2008 than we would like to think.

"There is still so much of the bigotry, animosity toward learning, animosity toward immigrant groups," she said. "There are people who want to progress, get beyond the stereotypes of race, gender and ethnicity; other people who rebel against that… There still is tremendous correspondence, particularly in science and religion."

Crafting an authentic historical fiction novel requires diving headfirst into library "tombs" and reading every word published about the individuals involved, Russell said. The author also obtained a recording of Mencken's voice to study his cadences.

"Henry James did not like historical fiction because he said it was impossible for someone with a modern sensibility to capture the conscious of a period before," Russell said. "But you try. You try to immerse yourself as much as possible knowing that it will never be perfect."

And so Russell traveled to Dayton, Tennessee to see, smell and feel the town, the courthouse; the summer heat. She stayed in the same bed and breakfast where one of the attorneys roomed, visitedthe college named after prosecutor William Jennings Bryan, and attended the town's annual dramatization of the trial.

"It hasn't changed very much," Russell said of Dayton. "Mencken came up with the term 'Bible belt' when he was at the trial. It still is the Bible belt, you feel it."



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