SOLANA BEACH — Efforts to solve a family mystery prompted Ona Russell to launch a new career as a fiction novelist more than 10 years ago.
In February, the Solana Beach author released “Rule of Capture,” the third book in her series featuring Sarah Kaufman, a real-life Jewish woman who made a name for herself in a male-dominated, gentile environment in Ohio in the 1920s.
“Some documents came my way that were very compelling,” Russell said. “They were news clippings about my husband’s grandfather, O’Brien O’Donnell. The family had never seen them before.
“They were hidden away in the attic,” she said. “It sounds like some stereotypical thing but it really happened. My mother-in-law had never shown them to the family. There were five thick scrapbooks about her father, who was this very prominent judge in Ohio.
“My mother-in-law passed away soon after giving us those clippings,” she added. “Right before that she checked herself into the hospital with a birth date that was actually different than the one her family had known. So there was a mystery. Why would she do that?”
Russell said she went back through the clippings to try to find an answer.
“I did find it in there and that actually formed the basis for my first novel,” she said. “While doing my research I came across this woman, Sarah Kaufman, who was also in the clippings. It appeared to me that she would make a really wonderful protagonist. So I took this historical woman and turned her into my fictional sleuth.”
Russell earned her doctorate degree in literature from the University of California San Diego and has taught at various universities and colleges. She developed courses focused on the truth of historical fiction and literature and the law and said she has an interest in historical documents.
She said she’s also always been “a closet fan of mysteries, as many academics are.” But she didn’t plan to write a historical mystery novel.
“I thought it would be a biography,” Russell said. “The reason I wrote it in novelistic form, in fictional form is that there were too many pieces that I could not answer truthfully about the mystery.
“When I write my books I do a tremendous amount of research to get historical accuracy,” she added. “Mystery seemed to be the best genre. That way I was not beholden to the facts per se in writing the plot. Otherwise it would not be accurate.”
“Rule of Capture” is a legal mystery that takes place in the 1920s in Los Angeles, where Russell was born. Many local landmarks are included in the book as Kaufman travels through San Diego on her way to Mexico.
Russell said she has some ideas for a fourth novel and San Diego is “definitely a probability” for a future setting.
“I’ve always felt drawn to being in this area,” she said. “My great-uncle was an architect for the Salk Institute. I see the influence that building has had on a lot of San Diego architecture, including where I taught at UCSD. I really feel this profound connection. There’s a familial connection.
“And as I’m talking it occurs to me the El Cortez Hotel would be a very interesting setting,” she added, referring to the landmark San Diego building that has been rumored to be haunted.
Her first two novels are “O’Brien’s Desk” and “The Natural Selection.”