Russell was born in the suburbs of Chicago. Her parents were both in the military: her father was a Marine Corps drill instructor, and her mother was a Navy nurse. She graduated from Glenbard East High School and later she earned a Ph.D in biological anthropology at the University of Michigan.
Russell currently lives in Lyndhurst, Ohio, a suburb of Cleveland, with her husband, Don. They have a college-age son, Dan.
Two of Russell's novels — The Sparrow and its sequel Children of God — explore one of science fiction's oldest concepts: first contact with aliens. Within the framework of the two works, she also explores how one can reconcile the idea of a benevolent deity in a universe filled with pain and evil.
Russell's third novel, A Thread of Grace, tells a fictional story within the fact-based setting of the Resistance in Italy during World War II and the plight of Jewish refugees in Northern Italy escaping from Nazi persecution throughout Europe. During the Nazi occupation of their country, many real Italian citizens allowed Jewish refugees to seek safe harbour among their farmlands, cities, and ports. Although a work of fiction, much of story is based on accounts of actual survivors from this period. Russell herself is of Italian heritage and is also a convert to Judaism.
Russell's fourth novel, Dreamers of the Day (released in March 2008), revolves around the 1921 Cairo Peace Conference, which laid the foundations for the modern Middle East.
Russell's forthcoming novel is a Western and murder mystery, entitled 8 to 5, Against. It is set in Dodge City in 1878, when the unlikely but enduring friendship between Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday began, four years before the famous shoot-out at the O.K. Corral. "8 to 5 Against" is currently set for release in May 3, 2011.