Graduate Essay: Author David H. Hendrickson, “Blending Genre and Experience,” Part 2

dave-hendricksonAuthor David H. Hendrickson is a 2006 graduate of the Odyssey Writing Workshop. His first novel, Cracking the Ice, was praised by Booklist as “a gripping account of a courageous young man rising above evil.” He has since published four more novels, including most recently, No Defense and Offside.

His award-winning short stories have appeared in numerous anthologies and magazines, most recently Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine and the Fiction River anthology series. His titles have populated multiple Kindle bestseller lists.

Hendrickson has published well over one thousand works of nonfiction ranging from sports journalism to humor and essays. He’s been honored with the Joe Concannon Hockey East Media Award and the Murray Kramer Scarlet Quill Award.

For more information about his writing, visit him online at http://www.hendricksonwriter.com where you can sign up for his mailing list and be notified of new releases.


This is Part Two of an essay; Part One was published last Sunday, and you can read it here.

Ten years ago, I’d never read a single romance, much less considered writing one. Not to put too fine a point on it, but romances were… for women.

Once again, though, workshops by Kris Rusch and Dean Wesley Smith opened my eyes to wider horizons. As part of assigned reading for one of them, I read my first romance, a novel by Nora Roberts. I found I enjoyed it more than its counterparts in the thriller genre by James Patterson and Clive Cussler. The experience showed me that I read primarily for the characters, not the plot and action, and romance is all about the characters.

So every now and then I tossed in a romance novel into my reading (ignoring the curious looks I got when friends in the fitness center spied the bare-chested hunk on my book’s cover). But I didn’t give it any more thought until another Kris Rusch-assigned reading list included a hockey romance novella.

A hockey romance.

It was close to love at first sight. Hockey romances! Who’d-a thunk it?

The novella was pretty good and I enjoyed it, but there was one detail that wasn’t quite right to my finely trained eye. That got me thinking. Why not me?

I figured I’d write a short story around 10,000 words, put it up electronically, and see what happened. I imagined a female sportswriter who’d never, ever cross the line into dating a player she covered, only to find that an old flame from college had been traded to her team. An old flame that she still burned for. While I was at it, I figured I’d use my own experience and that of my colleagues to provide an inside look at the world of a sportswriter.

body-check-cover-webWhat I had thought would be 10,000 words, however, became 20,000 and then 40,000 words, with no end in sight. The final manuscript for Body Check weighed in at over 120,000 words. Off by only 110,000. That was, of course, far, far too long for a contemporary romance. Almost twice the ideal size. Almost certainly, any New York editor who even considered it would require major surgery.

Fortunately, with the wonderful advent of indie publishing, I could release the book as I envisioned it. The manuscript went out to my first readers, then after incorporating their feedback, to the professional editor I hired, and…

Body Check sold like crazy.

All because, once again, I had looked outside my comfort zone—my newly expanded comfort zone, this time—and I’d taken a chance.
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My second YA title, Offside, which was adopted by Lynn English High School for its entire school to read this summer, looks at the same era as Cracking the Ice, but from the eyes of a naïve young, white boy whose family moves from rural Maine to the terrifying “Lynn, Lynn, City of Sin.”

I had wanted to look at some of the same racial issues as Cracking the Ice, only from the flip side in terms of race, and wound up including a surprising number of my own personal experiences growing up in Lynn. This time, I stayed away from hockey; my protagonist, “Rabbit” Labelle, is a football fanatic with some baseball thrown in for seasoning. Why? I’m not sure, it just felt right.

My latest novel, No Defense, returned to the hockey romance no-defense-cover-webgenre, but in a surprising setting. I’d taken the trip of a lifetime to Tanzania and couldn’t help but write about the wonders of the Serengeti. So I took a goalie escaping to Africa after giving up the worst goal imaginable in overtime of the Stanley Cup Championship Game 7.
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I suppose in some ways, I’ve followed that loathsome advice “write what you know” more often than I’d care to admit. I know hockey, I know what it’s like to move to “Lynn, Lynn, City of Sin,” and I now know the Serengeti.

But I don’t know what it was like to be a black teenager in the sixties, much less one leaving home for prep school. I don’t know what it’s like to be a female journalist. Or a professional hockey player. Those required research, interviews, and imagination.

So no, I didn’t just write what I knew.

I wrote what I was passionate about. Hockey. That wonderful African safari. The Civil Rights era. And in a love-hate sort of way, my tumultuous, sometimes violent years in “Lynn, Lynn, City of Sin.” And I wrote in genres I enjoy.

My advice is this: give yourself the freedom to explore new genres and new avenues of your imagination. Don’t limit yourself to autobiographically “write what you know.” You might find yourself slowly cannibalizing your life experiences, as I have done at times, but it’ll be the natural result of your storytelling, not some paint-by-numbers autobiography masquerading as fiction.

You’ll have the most fun writing—and your readers will have the most fun reading your work—when you do one thing above all.

Follow your passion.