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.”
Writing a historical fiction novel requires massive amounts of research, but actually is easier to write than straight fiction, Russell said.
“The facts guide you,” she said. “If you use them as accurately as possible, then it’s a paint by numbers kind of a thing. You fill in what’s been laid out by the textures and frame of the facts.”
Facts also led Russell to her main character, Sarah Kaufman, who first appeared in “O’Brien’s Desk.”
An Ohio native, Kaufman was a juvenile court probation office at the turn of the century that helped reform the juvenile system. She was also an early vocal supporter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
“She was highly regarded in her time,” Russell said, “but was one of the figures lost to history.”
By adopting Kaufman as her sleuth, Russell renewed local interest in her accomplishments, and as a result, Kaufman was inducted into the Toledo Hall of Fame in Ohio.
“Out of everything with the book, I’m most proud of that,” Russell said, who visited Kaufman’s grave in Toledo. “I feel like I’ve done something for her.”
Kaufman will continue to live on investigating mysteries. Russell is already working on her third manuscript, and plans to develop a 1920s historical mystery series, selecting a legal case from a different state for each book.
An adventure for author and readers alike, all thanks to Russell’s mother-in-law giving her some old scrapbooks.
“I almost feel like she knew what she was doing when she gave them to me,” Russell said, “knew I’d read them carefully.”
Russell will discuss “The Natural Selection” at Mysterious Galaxy July 19, and at the Solana Beach Library on July 26. For more information, go to