Magic as Science: Writing Fantasy

Recently I’ve seen and heard people discussing how, if you are writing fantasy, your magic needs to be science. What are they talking about? Is this something new?

Rowling’s magic followed
set rules, like science.

If you write for young readers, you may have already heard conversations about this. We just tend to frame it a little differently. When you write fantasy, there need to be rules to your magic. How does that mean the same thing as “your magic needs to be science”? Like this.

In science, there are certain universal rules. When you drop a book, it falls to the floor. When you heat ice, it turns into water. If you heat it enough, it boils and becomes steam. The world works in certain ways and we know what they are.

When you write fantasy, your magic needs to follow rules. Don’t freak out. They don’t have to be complicated. Think about the Harry Potter books. Spells were the result of using a wand and saying the appropriate things. But not every wizard could use every wand. Some wizards were much better at using wands than others.

Perhaps in your world humans can’t do magic. Only pixies can do magic. This means that when your main character accidentally turns her toast into a toad stool, she knows something is up.

Or maybe spells can only be performed in daylight. Or on Wednesdays. Or if you stand on one foot while wearing a lime-green tutu. The point is that you have to establish these rules for yourself, the writer. You may want to explain them to the reader, but you probably don’t need to. It is just one more way for you to make things complicated for your character.

Does your character know how the magic works? Maybe but maybe not. Harry doesn’t know why the glass disappeared in the zoo and released the snake. A character who purchases a spell has no clue what the mechanics behind it are, only that it will work in a certain way.

If there are rules about how magic works in your world, it makes for a more compelling story. Success is harder to achieve. There is actually some doubt whether or not your character will succeed.

Come on. You can do it. It isn’t rocket science.


Science Fiction and Fantasy Can Be Any Type of Story

If I tell you that I’m writing science fiction or fantasy, I haven’t told you what type of story I’m writing. Think about it. I’ve described the general category. The same goes for historic fiction or contemporary. You still don’t know what type of story I’m talking about.

A mystery can involve time travel. That makes it science fiction. Jasper Fford’s Thursday Next series is set in Britain ca. 1985. Time travel is something that is possible and cloning has brought back the dodo. Yet, there are also literary mysteries to solve.

If a mystery is set in a world with magic, that makes it a fantasy. Some days that is where I put the Gunny Rose series by Charlaine Harris. In these books, wizards work actual, often awful, magic in a Wild West alternate history following the assassination of FDR.

Combine crime and fantasy and you have my husband’s favorite series, The Dresden Files by Jim Butcher. Harry Dresden is a wizard who lives in contemporary Chicago, helping the police bust bad guys, especially when those bad guys include vampires.

Fantasy simply means that there is magic. Science fiction is science based but goes beyond the science we currently have. Historic fiction? Fiction set in times past. Each of these can be combined with any actual genre – romance, crime, adventure, mystery, redemption and more.

This is good news for writers because the possibilities are endless. What do you want to write? You can choose science fiction or fantasy, or straight fiction.

Next pick a setting. First decide when you want to set it in time. Past or present? Then pick where you want to set it. You can write a story set in Great Britain at the time of the Roman occupation. Your story could be a romance or a mystery.

You could write a story set in the American Midwest. Set it in the 1950s and it is historic fiction. You could be a crime story or an adventure. Add magic and you’ve got a fantasy on your hands.

When we look at the many books in print, it can be discouraging. There’s so much out there. How can we create a story that is truly are own? The answer – get creative and come up with a setting and story combination that are uniquely your own.


Science Fiction vs Fantasy vs Speculative Fiction

Yesterday (1/2) was National Science Fiction Day. It might not have caught my attention except I just recommended a novel to my sister. It was Upright Women Wanted by Sarah Gailey. For those of you who don’t know the book, it is a skewed pulp Western. The main character Esther stows away on a librarian’s wagon to escape an arranged marriage. Not only does she find unexpected allies but also a new purpose.

My sister was good-to-go until she looked at the categories for the book at Amazon. “Wait a minute. This says science fiction. I don’t want a book with aliens!”

Let me set the record straight, I would never ever recommend a book with aliens to my sister. Never. Ever.

But I would recommend an alternate history which is a type of speculative fiction. And, the book was actually listed under “science fiction and fantasy” although that would not have helped.

The terms science fiction, fantasy, and speculative fiction can be confusing for those who don’t read all three. Here are some ways to tell one from the other.

Science Fiction

Books in this category are based on science of the future. The things in them may not be possible yet but they are still scientific. Think Star Trek with space travel, communicators, and “beam me up, Scotty.”


Books in this category include magic. It doesn’t matter if they are set in times past or the present, either can be fantasy. Harry Potter? Fantasy. Lord of Rings? Also fantasy. Magic is the key.

Speculative Fiction

These books are set in a place other than the real world. They can be futuristic but slightly skewed, involving science and magic. Star Wars? Speculative fiction. Alternate history is a type of speculative fiction. These are books set in the past that is somehow different than the past we know. This is where Upright Women Wanted fits.

It doesn’t help that there is a lot of overlap. Upright Women Wanted is alternate history with no skewed science or magic. The Gunnie Rose books by Charlaine Harris have both skewed Wild West history and magic. They are speculative and fantasy.

Any time you aren’t sure which category a book fits under, fantasy, science fiction, or speculative fiction, I would simply call it speculative fiction because it is the broader category. And it doesn’t necessarilly include aliens.

But, it could.


Is Your Story Science Fiction, Fantasy or Speculative Fiction?

Photo by Kindel Media on

As I’m working on my science fiction novel, I’m seeking out more science fiction to read. In the past, I’ve read more fantasy than science fiction. Still I would sometimes come across the term speculative fiction. Which is which and how do you tell which you are writing?

Science Fiction

For the most part, science fiction is based on . . . science. There are technologies based on what we see today but re-imagined to include new discoveries and breakthroughs. Think the tranporter beams and communicators of Star Trek.

Many people describe science fiction as possible and based on the laws of the universe. Sounds a bit smug, yes?


Photo by Craig Adderley on

If science fiction is based on the possible, than fantasy must be based on the impossible or at least the improbable. It is about magic and fairies and pretend. (Imagine a science fiction enthusiast shuddering at the thought.)

Whether you think it is equal to or less impressive than science fiction, it involves magic. I remember reading Anne McCaffrey’s Pern books thinking I was in a fantasy world only to discover that the dragons were a result of genetic engineering. Oh, the horror! If the books had been fantasy, there would have been no genetic engineering involved.

Speculative Fiction

Not surprisingly, not everyone agrees on how to define speculative fiction. I most often define speculative fiction as any story set in something other than the real world.

Some people use the term to describe where science fiction and fantasy overlap. A story that has both science and magic? Speculative fiction.

Other people see speculative fiction as a term that encompasses science fiction and fantasy entirely.

What about Your Story?

So what does this mean for your story? Can you check the science box but not the magic box? Then you’re writing science fiction. You might also be writing speculative fiction but science fiction is a safe term.

Can you check the magic box but not the science box? Then you’re writing fantasy. Again, you might be writing speculative fiction but fantasy is a safe term.

Can you check both science and fantasy? That’s speculative fiction.

I have to admit that I’m happy my book is straight up science fiction. For now. My characters may still have some surprises in store for me.


6 Fantasy Subgenre

Urban Fantasy? Or Alternate History

What was the last book that kept you up long past bedtime? For me, it was An Easy Death by Charlaine Harris. You may recognize her name. She is the author of the Sookie Stackhouse series. An Easy Death is set in a version of US history where the country has fragmented. There is magic although it isn’t trusted and neither are the people who practice it. But the time and place are still recognizable. I would call this book alternate history. Fantastic Fiction calls it an urban fantasy.

Not sure what urban fantasy is? Here is a rundown of 6 types of fantasy.

Urban Fantasy

Urban fantasy is contemporary fantasy in an urban setting. In addition to magic (hello, it is fantasy), there is also often a paranormal element. Romantic subplots are frequent. The “real world” is often in conflict with the fantastic. People without magic must be kept in the dark where the world of magic is concerned. Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files series is by far my favorite urban fantasy.

Alternate History 

The name pretty much says it all. This story takes place in a different version of history. Sometimes it comes about because a historical figure dies. Or doesn’t die. A war is won or lost. Something isn’t invented. The world the story takes place in is generally recognizable but differs in a few very important ways. Admittedly, I haven’t read Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle but I do like the tv show. I would place An Easy Death right here. In the version of reality present in the book, FDR is assassinated before he takes office and the US fragments. I feel okay telling you this much because it is in the book description.

High Fantasy

If an editor says something about only one fantasy genre, it will be high fantasy. Of course, they are often saying that they want something other than high fantasy. High fantasy is an epic saga. The stories are long and involved and there are so many characters. There is often a journey, dragons, wizards and swords. Think Tolkien with his maps and elvish and that ring! LeGuin’s Earthsea trilogy and George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones are also high fantasy.

Medieval Fantasy

Does a story have King Arthur or Merlin? Is it set in medieval society? Then it is medieval fantasy. Notice how self-explanatory a lot of these names are? These stories are often based on or inspired by medieval myths or legends. The Mists of Avalon is a medieval fantasy novel.

Comic Fantasy

Fantasy novels that are as much comedy as anything else are comic fantasy. They may be satirical. Robert Aspirin and Terry Pratchett write comic fantasy. This is one type of writing where cliche is okay. Absurdity rules.

Dark Fantasy

I always think of this subgenre as horor light. There are monsters, hauntings and a dark, scary tone. These stories chill you to the bone. Neil Gaiman is known for his dark fantasy with both Coraline and The Graveyard Book.

As you’ve probably guessed, there is more than a little overlap. Some people call Game of Thrones medieval. Others say epic. But really? I’m not sure how An Easy Death slipped into urban fantasy since it isn’t contemporary or urban.

Whatever you want to call it, it is well worth the read.


2 Markets in Search of Work

I recently found out about two markets who are in search of work if you write speculative fiction or fairy tales.

Enchanted Conversations

Enchanted Converations: A Fairy Tale Magazine publishes retellings and mashups of multiple tales as well as modern stories told as fairy tales. These are tales of transformation and magic. They also publish creative nonfiction and essays about fairy tales.

Their theme for 2021 is Healers, Midwives, and Cunning Folk.

I’ve seen interviews with editor and she makes it clear. You need to visit the site and read the ezine before you submit. She can always tell when people see a listing and submit without studying Enchanted Conversations.

You can find out more about EC here.

Cast of Wonders

Cast of Wonders is a podcast that buys young adult speculative fiction. Not sure what speculative fiction is? That encompasses science fiction and fantasy. It is about fantastic worlds and events. As a pod cast they record your story but also make it available in print.

The pod cast began in 2011 and is considered a professional publication by both SFWA (Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America) and SCBWI (The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators).

Before submitting to Cast of Wonders, check out their publishing schedule. They periodically close to submissions and sometimes open only to work from certain authors or fitting certain themes.

NOTE: Both of these markets pay for your work. I’ll leave it up to you to read up on them and find out how much they pay as well as what rights they purchase. No matter where you see a market mentioned, it is up to you to check them out. I will never knowingly recommend a market that requires payment to publish or is otherwise a poor, unprofessional market.


RIP Kathleen Duey

In August of the year my mom died, I drug my 3 year-old, husband, and father to LA.  We all needed a change of pace and I could do the SCBWI LA Conference while they did the tourist thing.

I found my way to the coffee bar and into the vast main hall.  I suspect that even extroverts would feel a bit overwhelmed and I am not an extrovert.  There were so many amazing sessions and billions of people and so much noise and . . . periodically I would find myself sitting in a side room.  Just sitting.

At some point Kathleen Duey found me.  At that point, I just knew she was really nice.  We discussed our love of horses, being red heads, and the joy of fantasy.  She informed me that if I went gray and rinsed my hair with henna no one would know.  After an hour with Kathleen, I felt seen and heard and in touch with all the hustle and bustle around me.

I later discovered she was an amazingly prolific author.  This weekend, I found out that Kathleen passed away in late June.  The publishing world has lost a treasure.

If you don’t know her books, look her name up at the library.  She authored more than 75 books including:

  • 19 novels in the American Diaries series
  • 4 picture books in the Alone in the Dark series
  • 12 novels in the Survival series, co-authored with Karen Bale, with each book set during a historical disaster
  • 8 novels in the Time Soldiers series
  • 8 Unicorn’s Secret novels
  • 4 novels in the Spirit of the Cimarron horse series
  • 10 Hoofbeats novels
  • 3 novels in the My Animal Family series.  Each book has a young animal protagonist
  • 4 Fairies Promise novels and
  • 2 of 3 novels in the Resurrection Magic trilogy.

This is perhaps the saddest part of her legacy.  Kirkus Reviews praised Skin Hunger, the first novel in the series.  “This double-narrative fantasy begins slowly but deepens into a potent and affecting story of struggle.” Unfortunately, due to cognitive decline, she was unable to complete the last book.

Visit your library website and check out one of her books.  She was a master storyteller and an amazing human being who is already missed by her community.


Fantasy and Horror: The Bone Houses by Emily Lloyd-Jones

Seventeen year-old Ryn has three things in life – her family, the graveyard her family cares for, and the forest she explored with her father.  The other villagers avoid the dark of the forest, venturing when they must into the outskirts but never going far.

As a child, Ryn learned that the scariest forest things were the bone houses, dead who walk once the sun goes down. Her father, the grave digger who taught her the trade, showed her how to break them down with his ax.  She is carrying this weapon when, in the forest, she finds Ellis, a young map maker who is determined to make a name for himself even if it means journeying through the forest and toward the land of the fye.

Ryn saves him from a bone house and together they make their way to the village.  But the bone houses are traveling beyond the forest and make their way into the village itself.  Ryn and Ellis struggle to find out why the change and how they can stop the bone houses.

If you are interested in writing horror or fantasy, this is a book you need to read.  It works as fantasy because the story depends on fye magic and a kettle that can bring the dead to life.  When it is cracked, it no longer works as intended.  In this story the walking dead aren’t the result of a science experiment gone bad or a virus.  It is magic.

But the story also works as horror.  It is very atmospheric with walking skeletons coming out at night, lurking in the shadows of the forest, and the all pervading sense of dread that something horrible is going to happen when shadows grow long and the sun goes down.

The combination creates a multilayered story and strengthens its appeal.  Like a parfait, a cake, or a wafer cookie, the best stories have layers.  This is an excellent example of how to do it right.


When a Book Sends a Message without Preaching

Earlier this week, I read Upright Women Wanted by Sarah Gailey.  I have to admit that I assumed it was a young adult novel and the main character a teen.  After all, Esther seemed like a sheltered teen floundering in the big, bad world.  But then I looked at the spine.  It is a library book so it should have said TEEN but it didn’t.  Just the call number –




So I looked it up on Amazon.  Nope.  It is just a novel, published by Tor.  And by “just a novel,” I mean an amazing piece of fiction.

It is clear that Gailey has a  message for the world and for readers who feel they don’t fit it.  There are people like us everywhere.  They may be afraid to speak out.  Those in power may be pushing them to keep quite or at least to be sly.  But they are there.  Just look.

You’ll find them in books.

You’ll find them in libraries.

Librarians will help you locate them.  All you need to do is reach out and take that book.

For the most part, Gailey delivers these messages without stating them out loud.  I say for the most part because the main character is a little dense.  She needs it to be put out there pretty bluntly.

But Gailey delivers it all in the course of a fantastic story.  Esther stows away in the back of the librarians’ supply wagon.  She knows they aren’t happy about this.  She suspects they have something to hide.  But she’s pretty wrapped up in what she has to hide and in getting away from her father before she has to see someone else she loves swinging at the end of a rope.

The world is classic western but there are cars and tanks and it slowly becomes clear that this a post-apocalyptical novel in which a young woman who loves other women learns early on to hide who she really is for the safety of everyone.

Definitely a book that I want to take my time with when I’m not in the middle of a deadline.  There is a lot to learn from only 173 pages.


Space Opera: Exploring Science Fiction and Fantasy

Just yesterday, I was puttering around in cyberspace when I spotted something on space opera.  What caught my eye was a quote – “I associate the idea of space opera with appallingly bad writing.” I skimmed further and spotted this from the Oxford dictionary. They say that space opera are known for being simplistic and melodramatic.

Wow. Someone had a bee in their bonnet that day.

Space opera, simply put, is a sweeping, epic adventure that takes place in space.  There are battles, often in space or on other planets which pretty much covers every possibility.   There are pirates, vast military forces and adventure.

I’ve always been a fan of space opera although at the time I was reading it and seeing various movies I didn’t know that this is what it was called.  Classic space opera includes Star Wars, Dune (I’m a huge fan of the books), Starship Troopers, Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica, and Lost in Space.

By the time I discovered Fire Fly and Serenity, both made by Joss Whedon, I knew what space opera was. And don’t forget Avatar and Guardians of the Galaxy and several other movies set in the Marvel universe.

So of course, I had to check out the list in Publisher’s Weekly that author John Birmingham created, “10 Authors Shaking Up Space Opera.”  One of the things that I really appreciated is that there are three authors who have pulled in non-Euro-American traditions.  These three are:

Cixin Liu whose The Three Body Problem who combines this western literary form (space opera) with Chinese literary forms and culture.

Nnedi Okorafur author of the Binti novella series writes from within a Nigerian American sensibility.

Yoon Ha Lee especially thrilled me because his book, Dragon Pearl, is a middle grade novel published as part of Rick Riordan’s imprint.  The archetypes may be largely western but they are colored by Korean mythology.

Get your work into the hands of eager readers by combining a new twist with a tried and true form.  Check out the titles on Birmingham’s list for some ideas how that can be done.