The Well-Mannered Woman’s Guide to Kicking Ass Whilst Wearing a Corset

Gail Z. Martin

Steampunk, which is by definition set in the Victorian era, creates an interesting dilemma for writers with female characters. Namely, how do you adhere to a degree to period sensibilities and enable your heroine to get out into the action?

During the Victorian era, society placed social restrictions on what activities were considered proper for women in the middle- and upper-class. The style of dress that was popular at the time, including corsets, hoop skirts, and voluminous dresses further restricted movement. Lower class women had a little more leeway since they had neither the means nor the time to take part in elaborate social rituals. Still, we’re talking about a time in which it was considered scandalous to catch a glimpse of a woman’s ankle, to the point where some buildings had separate staircases so that women did not have to worry about a man seeing their ankles or petticoats as they climbed.

Iron and Blood by Gail Z. Martin and Larry N. Martin

Iron and Blood by Gail Z. Martin and Larry N. Martin

And yet, despite the limitations, steampunk has quite a few rambunctious, rule-breaking female leading characters. Whether it’s Alexia Tarrabotti from Gail Carriger’s Parasol Protectorate series, Eliza Braun in Philippa Ballantine and Tee Morris’s Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences series or Veronique LeClercq in the Iron and Blood series I co-write with my husband, Larry N. Martin, these women get around the rules and social conventions with wit, wealth, and sheer determination.

The idea of Victorian women with opinions and the lethal force to back up their views isn’t actually so far from reality. The Women’s Suffrage movement in England saw high-born women chaining themselves to fences, marching in protest, and even attacking the king’s horse at the races. Or, as Mrs. Banks calls them in Mary Poppins, ‘soldiers in petticoats’. Hardly the shy and retiring stereotype!

Also remember that much of the Victorian era in England is what we think of as the Civil War era here. Women during the war spied for both sides, some disguised themselves and took up arms, and others farmed the land and took over ‘men’s work’ while the soldiers were at war. This is also the time period of the settling of the American and Canadian West. Pioneer women drove wagons across the prairie, handled teams of oxen in the field behind a plow, fought off bandits and attackers, and made a go of it in an often harsh and inhospitable landscape. Likewise, women in Australia during the Victorian era had no time to be shrinking violets as they stepped up to the challenges on a highly dangerous continent.

While it doesn’t fit the stereotype of the refined woman with her elaborate tea service, women in Victorian times worked in coal mines, factories, textile mills, and on farms. Some worked in offices and stores. It also became more accepted for women to participate in some sports and ride bicycles. In other words, our conception of the restrictions on Victorian women are sometimes more limited than the women actually were in real life.

This was the era of Susan B. Anthony, Emily Pankhurst, Florence Nightingale, Marie Curie and Nellie Bly, Clara Barton and Harriet Beecher Stowe. As the saying goes, ‘well-behaved women rarely make history!’Grave Voices

Busting those stereotypes—and playing against expectations—is one of the things that is really fun about writing female protagonists in a steampunk world. It takes an extra level of cleverness to circumvent social constraints and accomplish the mission, but like their real-world counterparts, Steampunk ladies have figured out how to use the system to their advantage, and when all else fails, be sneaky.

For a steampunk heroine, corsets can provide an unexpected level of protection if modified, somewhat like a Kevlar vest. And as modern-day attendees of conventions and Renaissance festivals know, a good corset can hold a lot, including Derringer pistols, dirks and other contraband. Women in the steampunk era also began to wear jodhpurs and breeches for riding. Times were changing, and that edge of old empire vs. new beginnings makes for a lot of rule-bending.

We’re having a lot of fun writing determined women characters in a steampunk setting who are clever and adaptable, willing to break rules or use the rules to their advantage, and intent on holding their own and proving their capability. Somewhere in the afterlife, I believe our great-grandmothers are chuckling and sharing a triumphant cup of tea.

Check out our new Steampunk novella, Grave Voices, set in the world of Iron & Blood–now FREE on Wattpad!

And if you’re at Dragon*Con, please come say hello!  Here’s my almost-complete schedule (just missing one signing time)!


Developmental or Content Editing

Melissa Gilbert

Hey there!

Many of you are preparing for DragonCon, a lovely place where you are bound to catch all kinds of ideas for new stories and new character developments. Then, in a few weeks or months, you may have a first draft of a shiny new novel or short story. You’ll do all the things you need to do: shut it away in a drawer, revise it, ask someone to read it, revise it, threaten to throw it in the trash, etc. But, soon, you will be ready for the first editing step.

That step is developmental editing. For many years, I wanted to be a developmental editor for YA fiction. I’ve learned since working as an editor that I much prefer the small details over the big picture. That said, all editing is really fun. Many editors really enjoy the developmental editing stage, though. At that point, your story is a little like Mr. Potato Head. You’ve got a lot of the parts in there, but they may not be in the right places. Or, you may be missing a few things.

Image Credit:

Image Credit:

A developmental editor can help you get all those things in the right places and see what you’re missing.  Or perhaps you have four ears. The developmental editor can help with that, too.

Here are some of the things a developmental editor will look for.

  • Plot development and pacing: Is the story fully fleshed out? Does the story have rising action, a climax, falling action, and resolution (story arc)? Does it begin in the right place? Does it end in the right place? Does the pace keep the reader interested but still allow for some “breaks”?
  • Character development and character arc: Are the characters three dimensional? (Note: this means all the primary and secondary characters, not just the protagonist.) Does the character grow or change in response to a conflict? Is that growth/change logical? Does the character’s actions/words reflect the character’s personality? Or does the writer peek through a little too much at times?
  • Genre: Does the story fit with the genre in is intended? Consider language, age of characters, content, length, and word choice.

Of course, there’s lots more that could be addressed–from the title to the number of pages–but that’s the gist of it.

Now, when your developmental editor is done, you will get the dreaded “edit letter” that often leads to wailing in the corner and a sense of impending doom. (Not really…yes, really.) The letter you will get will be organized in a way that’s logical to the story. It may be chapter by chapter, plot point to plot point, or character by character. You may also get notes in line in the manuscript.

You and your manuscript may feel like this:

Image credit:

Image credit:

Your job is now to digest the information, dry your tears, and get your butt in the chair to revise.

Soon your manuscript will have all the right parts in all the right places and be ready to move on to the next stage of editing.

Mr Potato Head

Mr Potato Head

That’s it for today. Have fun at DragonCon, those of you lucky souls who get to go, and bring me back a thing or two, will ya?



Things That Help Me Write

Misty MasseyMisty Massey

Everyone has something that helps them get cranking on whatever writing projects they have going on.  Some folks need music, others need to be in their local coffee shop.  So I decided to make a list of the things that help me put words on the paper.

My Andrés Segovia Bach CD on repeat.

Soft rain outside my open window (especially on weekends when I can stay in my chair all day.)

A hot cup of coffee (or a cold glass of berry tea.)

Sudden ideas that pop into my head when I’m driving or showering. (Why haven’t I bought bath crayons to write these down on the shower wall?)

The peaceful silence of my house early on a weekend morning when I’m the only one awake.

The peaceful silence of my house late at night when everyone else is on their own computers.

A long car trip with nothing to do but talk to my husband and son about my ideas.

Getting an email from a fan asking when the next book will come out.

Hearing a real-life someone tell me that they love my work and can’t wait to read more.

Dancing to my favorite music until I’m sweating the ideas on my skin.

A brand-new spiral notebook and a pack of gel pens.

A story that’s nearly finished.

A story that’s just started.

Okay, it’s your turn.  Share with us the things that help you get moving.



How to stay safe at a con

John G. Hartness

alison-parker-adam-ward-today-150826-tease_d6aceb3048ff35498ceb9c59423a996e.nbcnews-ux-2880-1000This was supposed to be my tongue-in-cheek 2015 Con Survival Guide, but as of Wednesday morning I am reminded that things aren’t really very tongue-in-cheek, are they? The Alison Parker and Adam Ward were just doing their job at a water park this week when they were shot and killed by a man whose name I will not publicize.

I will not politicize this blog, and offer no comment on this shooting other than to offer my heartfelt sympathies to their families and to drive home the fact that no matter how innocuous the setting, please take precautions to be safe. There are bad people out there, not just in the pages of books, and most of the monsters don’t have fur or fangs.

So with Dragon Con coming up next weekend, here are a few tips to help you stay safe at conventions. Being a 6’1″ guy who tips the scales at over three hundred pounds and looks like an extra off Sons of Anarchy, I almost always feel safe, unless I’m too near an IRS office or a barber shop. So I enlisted the help of the inimitable Jaym Gates, publicist, editor, anthologist, and legit badass to assist in compiling this list. This is by no means comprehensive, but meant to point out a few things that you might not have thought about. Please be careful out there, and take care of one another.

1) Be aware of your surroundings – It’s easy to get sensory overload at conventions. Even for someone like me, who thrives on the energy I get from other people, a big con like Dragon or NYCC is a lot to take in. Keep your purse or wallet close. If you’re a guy, move your wallet to your front pocket, or even better, leave it in your hotel room buried in your underwear. Carry the minimum amount of cash, credit cards and ID you can live with.

And DO NOT CARRY YOUR ROOM KEY/CASH/ID in the same thing as your badge. Dragon Con has a strict no badge replacement policy, so if you lose your badge, you’re screwed. And you need a photo ID to get a new one. And you’ll need that ID to get a replacement hotel key. So if all those things are in your snazzy badge holder, you’re screwed.

2) Don’t accept food or drink from someone you don’t know – I don’t mean don’t let someone buy you a drink at the bar. I mean if you let someone buy you a drink at the bar, be standing at the bar when the drink is made, and don’t let that shit out of your sight. Roofies aren’t just for frat boys anymore, and it’s not just a thing that happens on CSI shows. Date rape drugs are real, readily available, and used on innocent and trusting people all the time. I know personally one usually very savvy individual who was roofied at a con, but managed to get back to his room alone before anything unfortunate happened. And yes, the person I know was a guy. Who got roofied at a room party.

3) Try to stay inside at night – There are some aggressive homeless dudes in downtown Atlanta, and I saw some mild hassling going on during World Horror Con earlier this year. With the numbers that Dragon drops into the city, and with all the sporting events going on next weekend as well, there will be a lot of drunks roaming the streets. That makes it a good time to be not on the streets.

4) Travel in packs, or at least with a wing person – Have backup. It’s always good to travel with a buddy no matter where you’re going. It makes the trip more fun, and safer. If you go down to the con alone, that’s fine. Hook up with a friend or group when you get there, and then you’ve got backup. And someone to wonder where you are if you don’t show up for dinner.

5) Have at least one person that you can make an “oh shit” call to – If you send a text that says “save me” and I look over and some guy has you cornered in a bar, then I can stage an intervention. If you make a call that includes a safety word, your friends can come help extricate you from an uncomfortable situation cleanly. Or not cleanly. I’m not subtle, but I’m effective.

6) Trust your “bump of trouble” – If somebody seems creepy, it might be that they’re awkward, or they might be really not a good person. You don’t have to be alone with anyone, for any reason, particularly to be polite. If it’s a fan, and they’re creeping a little, bring someone else into the conversation to help act as a buffer. If it’s a pro, and they’re creeping – same thing. Your instincts are pretty finely honed through years of not getting dead. Listen to them.

7) You don’t owe anybody shit – If George R. R. Martin ain’t my bitch, and he certainly isn’t, then you’re nobody’s bitch, either. Cosplay is no an invitation to grope, and agreeing to have a picture taken with someone doesn’t give permission for them to grab your ass. If someone does something inappropriate, REPORT IT IMMEDIATELY. Dragon Con has a robust anti-harassment policy, use it.

8) Take care of each other – It doesn’t take a lot to keep trouble from starting. Dragon Con is a huge rolling party of 60,000+ people, along with a NASCAR crowd for the Sunday race, and an SEC Football crowd for the Saturday season opener. That’s a lot of people in a small area. If you see something wrong happening, speak up. And if you need someone to watch your back, make sure to travel in packs.

Please remain aware of what’s going on around you, and take care of yourselves and each other.


David B. Coe: Ideas and the Creative Act of Faith


David B. Coe/D.B. JacksonThis will be my last post on Magical Words for a while. My two months here for the promotion of Dead Man’s Reach and His Father’s Eyes is over, and my larger promotional campaign, my Summer-of-Two-Releases Virtual Tour, is winding down. I think all this work has paid off; I hope it has. I’d like to see some nice sales numbers for these two books I love so much.

My focus now is on my next project, which is only just beginning to take shape. I have a magic system — one I really, really like — and I have a couple of characters in mind. But I don’t yet have a plot, or a central conflict. And that’s starting to bother me.

Where do ideas come from? Can they be forced? These questions have been rattling around in my head for some time now, as I struggle to figure out what this new project is going to be about. I know that there is a story here. What I have already has too much texture, too much depth, too much flavor for it to be a creative dead end. But while I have had ideas for sub-plots and the world has taken shape nicely, I haven’t been able to come up with that core storyline.

More to the point, I’ve been doing something I don’t normally do: I’ve been trying to force myself to be imaginative. I’m ready to start working on this book. I want the ideas to come now. Usually by this time, I’ve known for some time what I’ll be working on next. My new shiny usually presents itself while I’m still working on my previous series. More often than not, I’m writing one book, chomping at the bit to get done with it so that I can move on to the new thing. Not this time. The new shiny has been slower to develop.

I’m trying to view this as a new challenge, as opposed to, say, a sign that I’m running out of ideas. But it’s frustrating, and I’m wondering how I can short circuit the process and make myself come up with the plotting and remaining worldbuilding I need in order to get going.

Dead Man's Reach, by D.B. Jackson (Jacket art by Chris McGrath)His Father's Eyes, by David B. Coe (Jacket art by Alan Pollock)All of which brings me back to those questions: Whence ideas, and is there anyway to speed the little buggers along? Yes, I’ve tried all the standard advice: the writing prompts, the stream of consciousness brainstorming, the background exercises in short fiction, even the “Work-on-something-else-for-a-while” approach. All sound tactics, all busts this time around.

On some level, I think I’ve come to the conclusion that ideas can’t be rushed, that they will be written in their own time. All of the work I’ve done in recent months to make myself think creatively about this project, has been only minimally successful. It has given me insights at the margins, but has yet to touch the core of the idea, the churning center I sense but have not yet glimpsed.

So then how do I know that the center is there? How can I be so certain that a core even exists? Isn’t it possible that my certainty about the viability of this project is a mirage and nothing more? Sure, I suppose it’s possible. There may be no “there” here, as it were. But over the years I’ve come to the conclusion that the act of creation is, among other things, an act of faith. We start our projects believing that when our work is done, the finished product will be complete and coherent, a reasonable representation of the vision that drove us to begin in the first place. But of course, we have no guarantee of this. We have only our confidence in our own creative process.

And I guess that’s where I am now. I have the elements of an idea — strands of plot, fragments of character, incomplete mosaics of setting — and based on these I assume there must be a complete story — a book, or perhaps even a series of them — waiting to be told. I could be deluding myself. I might have finally have come across the one book I want to write but can’t. Time will tell, I suppose. But I assume that when next you hear from me — in January, perhaps — I will have a new book well on its way to completion.

In the meantime, I wish you all great success with your own works-in-progress. May your ideas come to you well-formed and ready to be written, and may your submissions be met with swift, positive responses.

Be well, write well.


David B. Coe/D.B. Jackson is the award-winning author of eighteen fantasy novels. Under the name D.B. Jackson, he writes the Thieftaker Chronicles, a historical urban fantasy from Tor Books that includes Thieftaker, Thieves’ Quarry, A Plunder of Souls, and, the newest volume, Dead Man’s Reach, which was released on July 21. Under his own name, he writes The Case Files of Justis Fearsson, a contemporary urban fantasy from Baen Books. The first volume, Spell Blind, debuted in January 2015. The newest book in the series, His Father’s Eyes, came out on August 4. He lives on the Cumberland Plateau with his wife and two daughters. They’re all smarter and prettier than he is, but they keep him around because he makes a mean vegetarian fajita. When he’s not writing he likes to hike, play guitar, and stalk the perfect image with his camera.

When you don’t write what you know: RESEARCH!

Tamsin Silver

The Curse of Scathach Cover Color Final Small In “The Curse of Scáthach,” Tamsin L. Silver has created an intriguing and fast-paced story set in the wild west. It’s the right balance of historic accuracy and flight of fancy to please fans of weird westerns and historical fantasy. Saddle up and go read it!

R.S. Belcher

(The Six-Gun Tarot, The Shotgun Arcana, and Nightwise)

I originally had opened this with a different picture, but seeing as I’m over the moon right now with this amazing quote I got today about my short story from RS Belcher, I thought I could bask in it for a moment. You’ll forgive me, right?

This quote will be going on the new cover of this short story…the same story that I am turning into a full novel…which means research, which is what I’m here to talk about today.

Okay, I’ve basked long enough, let’s get down to it…

You often hear, “Write what you know.” And this makes good sense. My first protagonist was from Michigan because I’m from there and my new protagonist in Mark of the Necromancer is in NYC…because I live there. Now, does that mean you should only write in locations you know well? For your first book, I highly recommend it. Either that or create a fully fictional city where you can do what you please. Just be sure to flush out every aspect of that city/world because your fans will devour it and if you leave gaping holes or get something wrong, they’ll catch you. Obviously you hope your editor catches you first, but that’s a whole other series of posts by Melissa Gilbert. :-)

There is one person right now internally whining with, “But why?”

Because if your world is not believable, all your work is for naught. That’s why.


Where was I? Ah yes, location location location! So…must you always write what you know or create from scratch? No. As you grow as a writer and a human being who travels about this great Earth, you’ll experience more and can branch out. However, just because you spend a weekend in Seattle doesn’t mean you should set a book there unless you plan to research the city and it’s residents, get to know the flavor of the city (the good and bad), download maps of the area, and if you can manage another visit, all the better. This is why I went to New Mexico. Because A) I may be from a small farming town in Michigan, but I live in NYC…I’m a city girl, without question. B) The furthest “out west” I’d ever been (and Los Angeles, CA, doesn’t count) was to San Antonio, TX for two days to see my friend get her wings (USAF). Having my picture taken in front of the Alamo does not a wild west historian make.

Thus, when I decided this wasn’t so much a short story but a full novel, I knew I was going to have to research my arse off. You may ask, what does that include. Well, I suggest, to start off with the following:

  • Learn who are the authorities on a topic and buy/read their books.
  • See who they mention in their notes and go get those people’s books too & read them.
  • Then go online and see what books/authors are the most read/purchased on the topic. Now buy those. Read them.
  • Find maps from the time period you plan to use and buy/download those.
  • Find websites with pictures of people, clothes, furniture, buildings, and so on from that time period and begin to bookmark them OR copy/paste them onto a document OR email them to yourself.
  • If you know someone in that town, see if they mind helping you with things.

Short version: Find valid info and read your butt off. :-) Take Notes. Use highlighters and be the super nerd on the train (oh wait, is that just me?)

Someone asked me the other day, “How long do you need to research all this before you can begin to write?”

That’s a valid question. But I fear you will not like my answer. But here goes…

It’s different for everyone. *ducks & runs*

But seriously, you will NEVER feel like you’ve researched enough. Much like actors never feel they are ready for that curtain to go up on opening night…or an artist feels a painting is truly done…HOWEVER, and this is important, you cannot research forever. You MUST eventually take what you’ve learned and write. You can always go back to look at a note, or a book, or look a fact up online as you go. I say this to you and to myself…for I am at that point now. I have been reading and researching for almost 6 months and have gone to the place the LCW took place, and yet I too said to myself the other day, “Should I research until November and then start?”

No. I’m ready. I’m just in love with the research. I can’t learn enough about these people and this war. I am a sponge that never seems to become full because learning is a high…especially when you are going to be using it all to create something magical.

So how do you know when you can stop?

You. Never. Stop.

Yes yes, it was all a trick question…but that doesn’t make it any less true. You’ll write and research and research and write and fact check and on and on and on (can I fit one more “and” in there?). Once you know enough that you could tell the basic historical information (the basic structure of what your story centers around historically speaking) to someone with names, and places, and specific details with minimal note checking, you’re ready.

Let me rephrase…


I’m sure I’ll believe that soon, right? :-)

So I’m about to go off on a writing adventure. One I’ve prepared for. Six months of reading text books (and I still have 3 more to read and more to buy…but that’s what the subway ride is for this time around). Will it compare to my in person adventure to Lincoln, NM? Hopefully so! I really cannot wait to begin…or to go back to Lincoln again!

I hope that if you are working on something that takes you into history or into another city that you need to research, that you not only enjoy it, but that you don’t put off the writing because the research becomes a drug you don’t want to put down. Which reminds me, be very careful to not go down the rabbit hole while writing. If you need to go find a fact online, give yourself a time limit. Set a timer. If you don’t, trust me, two hours will go by and you’ll have lost two hours that could’ve been brilliant words on “paper.”

My solution to help me from this happening? Books, notes, a timeline, a list of names with dates and description, and turning my internet off. If I need something I don’t have in one of my books, I can use the internet on my phone…I’ll be less likely to stay staring at that little thing than I would at the actual computer monitor.

So…good luck with your research…and your ability to transition from research to writing (with continued research). I feel it’s an art form…one I hope I conquer as well. Will we fall on our face a few times? Sure! But that’s okay. The next day is a brand new slate to fill…so fill it well.

That’s it for me this time around…write hard, bathe in imagination, and go forth and research! Expand thy knowledge and have fun with it!

Tamsin :)

P.S. I know some were hoping or pictures of my trip, so scroll below and see a VERY truncated version. If you would like to see more and learn more about it all, you can visit/Like my new Facebook page called, The Curse of Billy the Kid. A portion of the pics are already loaded with different info typed on each one…so go check it out! Until then…here’s some of the more interesting things of my trip.

July and August are Monsoon Season in New Mexico. It rains almost every day and you can see it coming for you. Here’s a picture of exactly that!

Monsoon season

My first day there I drove to Fort Sumner to pay my respects to Billy at his gravestone (pictured on my other post) and got to The Ellis Store B&B in Lincoln by 10:30pm. Here is the walkway up to the B&B in the day light. That blue door on the left is the room I stayed in.

the ellis store

The next morning my historian friend in Lincoln (Marilyn) surprised me by showing up after breakfast and we went to the Lincoln Museum, ate lunch at the Wortley Hotel, and attended Fort Stanton Days. Here’s a picture of the inside of the Wortley where Billy would’ve eaten multiple times:

Inside the Wortley Hotel Dining Area

The next day we drove out to see the ranch house that John Tunstall built (for it still stands!) out on the land Dolan eventually owned (you know, after he’d had John murdered). The house John built is currently under renovation, but I was able to go inside since Marilyn knows the man who owns it. Here’s a picture of the house and me standing on the hearth of John’s fireplace, where he used to sit writing letters to his family.

John Tunstall's HouseMe on Tunstall's fireplace hearth








After walking through John’s home, we traveled out to a ranch hand’s bunker where Billy and others who worked for Tunstall would have slept in bad weather when they were squatting on the land to keep the cattle from being stolen or someone else from trying to take the land. Here are pictures of it. The black and white shot is the building in the 1940’s, and that front section with stone was a modern addition. In the day of Billy and his friends, only that left section was there.

tunstall bunker house improved in the 1940's

What this place looks like today:

Tunstall bunker house

What looking down into the room where Billy would’ve slept looks like today:

tunstall bunker house looking inside

From here we drove down the dirt roads…

dirt road to tunstall's

…to the white house that Dolan built for he and his wife and children on the same land…

Dolan's white house

Luckily while we were there, the son-in-law of those who now own this home was around and he let us see the inside of this place (it’s gorgeous!), eat our lunch on the picnic table you see here, and joined us for some fun conversation.

After we ate, we drove to Roswell to see if we could find the famous South Springs Ranch where John Chisum (the Cattle King) lived and where the Regulators spent a good amount of time. Sadly, after searching all over the land where it would have been, all we found was a marker where the home used to stand:

Jinglebob spring ranch sign

One of the nights I roamed around the town of Lincoln while no one was around and took video and pictures of buildings. At one point I went to stand at John’s grave out back of the Tunstall Store and have a chat, while looking out at this blueish-purple sky:

behind the tunstall store at twilight

My last day we went hiking in Tunstall Canyon to find the marker where John was killed, but couldn’t find it due to all the new growth the rain had caused. But it was a gorgeous hike!

Tunstall Hike

Then we went to Blazer’s Mill Cemetery on the Mescalero Reservation so I could pay my respects to Richard M. “Dick” Brewer (first leader of The Regulators and one of John Tunstall’s best friends). Interestingly enough, almost the minute you are on reservation land, the terrain changes. The hills are covered in pine trees and the brush is gone…

reservation area

The next day I was on my way back to Albuquerque with a head full of knowledge and my heart full Bonney, Brewer, and Tunstall. I left a rock at each of their graves as a token and took one with me as well. Those three rocks sit here next to me as I write…and will until the project is done.

My hand on Brewer's gravestone


Adjectivals: Relative Clauses

Emily Leverett

As promised, today I’m going to be dealing with relative clauses.

A brief recap: a clause is a series of words that contains both a subject and a predicate; a clause may or may not be independent (a sentence).

Relative clauses are dependent, they identify the nouns they modify, and they often immediately follow the nouns or pronouns that they modify.

As dependent clauses, they never stand on their own as a sentence.

Identifying the noun:

Like adjectival prepositional phrases, relative clauses answer questions like “what kind?” and “which one?”

So: The washing machine broke again.

This is a straightforward sentence; it has the traditional subject/verb construction; it is in the active voice; and it has one modifier, again, an adverb modifying “broke.”

Well, which washing machine? what kind of washing machine is it?

The washing machine, which I hate with all my heart, broke again.

The relative clause, beginning with a relative pronoun, modifies “washing machine” (more specifically, “machine”). It tells us either which machine (possibly there are several so it is the specific one I hate), or what kind (the category of machines I hate). Also, it is a clause; it has a subject and a verb, and in this case, a direct object. If we were to write the relative clause as we do normal sentences (subject / verb / direct object) it would look like this: I hate which with all my heart. Of course this is awkward and we’d never use it, but it allows you to see how the relative clause works grammatically.

The word(s) that the relative clause modify are called the antecedent. (“Ante-” meaning before). So the antecedent to our relative clause is “machine.”

Notice that the first word in the relative clause almost always the relative pronoun whose antecedent is the noun it modifies.

Common relative pronouns (or pronouns that can also be used as relative pronouns) include: which, that, what, who, whom, and whose. On occasion, relative clauses can lead with relative adverbs: when, where, and why. For example: The closing ceremony will be held in the gym where we first gathered.  Here, the modifying clause is “where we first gathered” and adds more information to “gym.”

The choice of relative pronoun (do I use which? do I use that?) is based on the content of the sentence. Rather than explain it, I’ll just refer you to Melissa’s awesome post about it here.

Relative clauses, like prepositional phrases and single-word adjectives, give us ways of adding information for our audience. They allow us to collapse multiple pieces of info into one sentence. For example:  “The books are missing. They are the books that were on the table.” Lots of unnecessarily repeated info there!  How about “The books, which were on the table, are missing!”

Next time, I’m going to start a series of posts about words and how we can break them down into their parts and rebuild them, and how we can make up our own words.