I’ve been a freelance writer for nearly two decades, specializing in science and medicine. Most of my living comes from editors who like my work and farm out stories to me. That’s healthy for my cash flow, but it comes with a drawback: I rarely get to choose what I write.
I doubt I’m alone in this, but I’ve never been very good at developing pitches. Press releases are generally uninspiring, and ideas from them aren’t likely to be original enough to impress an editor.
On those rare occasions when I do develop a compelling pitch, it seems to be born of serendipity—usually an off-hand comment during an interview.
But there are other sources, and you never know when a story might be staring you in the face. In January I happened on a pitch that earned a four-figure paycheck. It started with sheep.
My hobby is sheepherding with my two border collies. Once in awhile on a weekend, I travel to compete in sheepherding trials here in the Pacific Northwest. The rest of the time, I blow off steam on Tuesday afternoons by taking a break from my freelance routine and getting away from my computer and out into the country, where my dogs and I learn to round up sheep and move them around under the watchful eye of my trainer.
When I’m back at my computer, I spend time at the message boards of the United States Border Collie Club. Dog owners frequently post questions about housebreaking, health problems, behavioral issues, and training for sheepherding, agility, and other pursuits.
One day in January, a woman named Milena Mendez posted a message asking for advice on how to get her border collie to sniff out and fetch turtles. She explained that she was a biologist and wanted to use her dog in her field research.
I posted a bit of advice, got a laugh out of it, and then a few minutes later got to thinking: What was the story here?
So I contacted Mendez through the site’s message system. It turned out she was from Guatemala. A long-distance call to Guatemala City was out of the question for a spec interview, but she agreed to talk via Skype.
After a brief introduction, and pointing our respective tablets at our dogs so that she could meet mine and I could meet hers—we were both dog people, after all—I learned that she was studying an unusual species of turtle near a remote village on the border of Guatemala and Belize. One day last summer she was commenting to her assistant, a villager named Cush who had been a well-known turtle hunter, about how difficult the turtles were to catch because they spend all their time under water. Cush said he had trained his own dog to sniff out turtles and even their nests, and so she came up with her idea to use her dog, a Border collie puppy named Fenix.
That was enough for me, and I pitched the story to Science Careers as a profile of an early career scientist with an innovative approach to her work, and I got the assignment.
Reporting on the story, I learned that the turtle, Dermatemys mawii, known locally as the hickatee, is the last remaining species of an ancient family that dates to the Jurassic, which makes it a pretty remarkable animal. But then I learned of a genetic study that suggests that the turtle may have diverged into two different species, and both groups are present in the population that Mendez is studying. More research is needed to confirm, and Mendez plans to contribute to a genetic study that will address the question.
Reading a border collie message board turned into a pretty good environmental story. All of which goes to prove that my next great story idea could be anywhere—I just have to keep my eyes open and remember to ask myself: “What’s the story here?”
Jim Kling lives and writes in the shadow of an active volcano. He is a professional writer and an amateur sheepherder, botanist, and father. He blogs at http://jimkling.wordpress.com.