fbpx

What is Speculative Nonfiction? by Kathleen Alcalá

Posted Tue, 6/18/2019 - 9:45am by  |  Category: ,

la·cu·na (ləˈk(y)o͞onə): n. (plural lacunae).
1. an unfilled space or interval; a gap. (“the journal has filled a lacuna in Middle Eastern studies”).
2. a missing portion in a book or manuscript.
3. (anatomy) a cavity or depression, especially in bone. (Google Dictionary)

Good speculative nonfiction borrows the techniques of fiction in order to explore the mysterious, the undefined, and the ineffable. By defining an area for which we lack information, it offers a freedom not usually available to the nonfiction writer.

Some of the best examples of speculative nonfiction combine memoir with history or science.

In the case of Hilton Als’ essays in the New Yorker, by approaching a well-worn subject from a new point of view, such as the writings of outsider Flannery O’Connor, we are offered depths into her work not previously held up to the light. Underheard or suppressed voices also offer us new insights into seldom-explored subjects.

Potential subjects for speculative nonfiction surround us, especially since each of us brings a unique perspective to the subjects we choose to write about. But careful research can enhance individual insights and attract potential readers to your subject.

Other books that can be classified as speculative nonfiction include:

The Black Count by Tom Reiss: A biography of Alex Dumas, a French/Caribbean soldier who fought under Napoleon. Reiss had to blow up a safe to obtain some of the source material he used in this book.

The World Without Us by Alan Weisman: This book includes descriptions of areas of the world recently untouched by humans, and provides tantalizing hints of how the earth could recover without us.

Letters from Berlin by Kerstin Lieff: This is a book of letters to an unknown lover written by the author’s mother during the siege of Berlin at the end of WWII. Lieff found them after her mother’s death.

Trace by Lauret Savoy: This book ties geography to the history of the author’s mixed-race family, highlighting our deep ties to place.

Over the course of six sessions, our supportive online class will encourage each participant to list several potential subjects, then do preliminary research to see which avenue to pursue. We will learn how to draw out interview subjects and find information that no one else has access to. Through persistence and patience, we will write narratives that illuminate the hidden and penetrate the surface of the known world.


Kathleen Alcalá is the author of a short story collection, three novels, a collection of essays, and a nonfiction book on our relationship with food and the land. Her work has received the Western States Book Award, the Governor’s Writers Award, and a Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association Book Award. She received her second Artist Trust Fellowship in 2008, and was honored by the national Latino writers group, Con Tinta, at the Associated Writing Programs Conference in 2014.

Kathleen has a BA in linguistics from Stanford University, an MA in creative writing from the University of Washington, and an MFA from the University of New Orleans. Kathleen has a great affinity for the storytelling techniques of magic realism and science fiction, and has been both a student and instructor in the Clarion West Science Fiction Workshop.