Former San Carlos resident Elaine Russell began writing young adult adventure stories to engage her son as he was growing up in the Sacramento area.
Her son (Michael McDonald, now 21) helped her develop a relationship with the Hmong community and that led to the novel "Across the Mekong River," which was published last year.
"When my son was young he was not a great reader," Russel said in a recent phone interview. "I wanted to write fun things that would interest him."
She's had several short stories and books published in the genre as a result. In the wake of her novel, she has been working on a young adult book and is close to presenting a final draft.
When that is completed, Russell has another idea for an adult book, a historical novel set in Denver in the 1900s.
"I wish I were more organized," Russell said. "I do try to write mostly every day. When I start a new book I spend a lot of time on it, though it is more in spurts."
Russell graduated from San Carlos High and headed off to UC Davis during the height of the Vietnam conflict.
Years later, after she settled in Sacramento with her husband, Russell began getting involved with the Hmong community, which has its roots in Laos and was tragically affected by the second Indochina War (Vietnam).
Hmong people relocated all over the United States with a heavy concentration in Sacramento and the Central Valley.
Russell was exposed to the Hmong through her son's school.
"I just started getting interested," Russell said. "I didn't know what was going on in Laos. The Sacramento Bee ran an article about the struggles of the community. I started doing some research and one thing led to another."
Russell began interviewing Hmong women and eventually visited Laos in 2006, which prompted the book.
Known as Richard Nixon's Secret War, there was supposed to be no foreign interests in Laos. Both the United States and Viet Cong were there, and evidence of bombing raids still exist.
"We dropped the ball on Vietnam and Cambodia too," Russell said. "The women had amazing stories, both fascinating and sad. It was such a tragedy. The Hmong choose to stay and fight the Viet Cong and the U.S. did not help and abandoned them."
The first generation Hmong to arrive in America were illiterate and had difficulty adjusting to the U.S.
"They came here with their own language," Russell said. "They had an oral tradition."
The Hmong were finally recognized for their service in Laos in 2003 and fighters were granted veteran status, which meant they were eligible for benefits.
Russell wrote a fictionalized version of one family's escape from Laos, through refugee camps in Thailand and eventually to the United States.
Russell became an advocate for the community and she includes resources for further information.
Russell continues to live in Sacramento and Hawaii.