What is Speculative Fiction, anyway?

Realm Makers

One of the great things about attending the Realm Makers conference is that when you say you write fantasy, people grin and say “cool, what kind of fantasy?” and then let you go on about whether you have dragons and magic or not. Because unlike other Christian writers conferences, this one is just for those of us who write speculative fiction.

In the real world, often as not, “I write fantasy” draws blank stares and comments like “what does that mean, exactly?”

While I agree with Randy Streu’s excellent article “All Fiction Is Fantasy,” we also have to admit that fantasy is the label we use to describe works of a special kind. It’s the fiction of mythical lands that don’t exist, of dragons and magic and supernatural events. Contrast that with science fiction, the realm of the future, of outer space, high technology, and alien races.

Speculative Fiction is a handy term that encompasses both, along with all forms of paranormal and supernatural fiction, including alternate history and time travel.

faith fantasy science fiction

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Maybe the line between speculative and, for lack of a better word, nonspeculative fiction is thin and blurry. But we know who we are. At least, we mostly know. Occasionally I meet new writers who aren’t really sure what genre they belong in. I spent half an hour at a conference once with a writer who didn’t know how to pitch her book—or to whom—because she didn’t know the genre. She told me it was in a made-up country—and I said what, like Narnia in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, or like Genovia in The Princess Diaries?

No, no, neither of those. It was like ancient Europe, but not.

Like The Lord of the Rings?

No, there’s no dragons or magic…

She described the plot to me, and at first I though maybe it was alternate history. Finally I asked her to send me pages, and sure enough, although the opening read like a historical novel, I pretty quickly figured out it was a fantasy novel. In fact, it’s similar my own, which is also set in a fantasyland with no dragons or magic.

So we sometimes can figure out our genre by figuring out what other things we’re like. Other times, we need to talk it through with others who understand. Once we do, it makes talking about our work easier, because we can find other writers doing similar work, and we can recruit them as beta readers or brainstorming partners.

C.S. Lewis friendship

Which is what makes Realm Makers so perfect. As great as the Internet is in joining us together, there is nothing like looking someone in the eyes and discussing your mutual passion. Just as we are continually reminded to read our genre, we are also well advised to talk with others in our genre. Not only for the mutual support of knowing we’re not the only one pursuing a strange goal. But also for the kind of gestalt that can only come from being surrounded by like-minded individuals.

Attending writers conferences is good. Attending a writers conference with people who share your genre is excellent. Attending a writers conference with people who share both your genre and your faith is incomparable. This is the best way we can build each other up.

This year’s Realm Makers takes place May 30-31 in Philadelphia, and registration is open. Only 100 seats are available, so register soon. I’ll be teaching there, along with many talented instructors. If you’re a Christian who writes Speculative Fiction, I hope to see you.


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About Kristen Stieffel

Kristen Stieffel is a writer and freelance editor specializing in speculative fiction. She's a member of the Editorial Freelancers Association, Christian Editor Connection, and American Christian Fiction Writers.

7 thoughts on “What is Speculative Fiction, anyway?

  1. Pam Halter says:

    Love that CS Lewis quote! This is why I’m looking forward to the conference. I don’t often meet face to face with other fantasy authors.

    • Especially Christian fantasy authors. Sometimes when I’m at a secular conference, I can be talking SpecFic with other writers, but when I mention I write for the Christian market, I get that same blank “oh” that SpecFic writers get from other Christian writers. I look forward to seeing you there!

  2. Krysti says:

    Kristen, that is so true! I wish I could come! I’m still hoping for a miracle for next year.

  3. What did you decide upon to call the non-magic-heavy fantasy? That is exactly what I have written, and I have a problem explaining it to people! If it is already a sub-sub-genre, PLEASE!!!… I want to know what it’s called!
    Let me in! *Pounds on the iron grid of the portcullis pathetically*

    And 100% absolutely, I want to go to Realm Makers. Unfortunately, my story didn’t win (or place) in the contest, so my one chance is out.
    But someday, I hope to be there.

    Thanks for sharing on this subject!
    Elizabeth

    • Caprice Hokstad, author of the Ascendency Trilogy (and lots of other stuff), coined the term “sword opera” for fantasy that lacks magic or mythical creatures like dragons. I also like to call it “lite fantasy,” because a lot of people still give blank stares when I say “sword opera.” 😉 The other books I know of in this vein are Amberly by Mary Elizabeth Hall and If One Falls by Elaine Baldwin.

      So sorry the contest didn’t work out for you, Elizabeth. I pray you’ll be able to attend next year!

  4. […] took a week off for the Realm Makers conference. Had a fabulous time with all my fellow SpecFic writers, and got some good feedback on my class about representing multiple languages in speculative […]

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