One May morning in the late nineties, a help-wanted ad in the local newspaper caught my eye. Someone was looking for freelancers to write articles for a bi-monthly publication featuring household pets and farm animals. The ad asked prospective writers to include writing samples with their responses. At the time, I was one semester away from finishing the requirements for my bachelor’s degree in English. I was interested in learning more about an opportunity to do some writing that didn’t involve dissecting the lives of fictional characters. After reading the ad, I thought why not see what this is all about?
I answered the ad, dutifully enclosing copies of my essays and anecdotes that had been published in daily and monthly newspapers in Arizona, California, and Massachusetts. In June, I received a letter from a woman whom I’ll call “Gloria.” Gloria wrote that she enjoyed reading my writing and wanted to meet me. We met at a Friendly’s restaurant where she elaborated on her plans for the newspaper. When we were done chatting, she asked me if I was still interested. Well, of course I was. Not only was it an opportunity to do some writing, but Gloria also would pay me for my published articles.
Over the next few months, Gloria gave me five assignments.
Two of those assignments involved writing articles for a feature that focused on farm animals. One profiled a couple who raised, trained, and showed Morgan horses. The other was about a therapeutic riding program. Both were short articles of approximately 500 words, and they involved no research. Prior to writing the articles, all I did was spend about forty-five minutes interviewing the owners of the businesses.
I wrote three much longer articles for a feature called “Spotlight On . . ..” Those articles, in order of appearance, were about dog licensing by mail, ferrets, and Munchkin cats.
In preparation for writing the dog licensing article, I interviewed a town clerk, a city clerk, and a dog officer. When I read the published version of the article, I found a sentence I didn’t think I had written. I checked my hard copy. No, I hadn’t written that sentence. An editor must have added the sentence after I turned in the story. I was more than a tad bit upset because the sentence didn’t seem to make much sense. As far as I was concerned, the sentence was grammatically incorrect. It wasn’t my error, but people would think it was.
I researched the ferret article by buying a book about ferrets and a magazine about exotic pets that included a section on ferrets. I went to the library and searched through newspaper articles in order to learn the pros and cons regarding the legalization of ferrets and to verify the date on which they became legal in Massachusetts. I talked to several ferret owners who were eager to discuss their pets with me.
In the back of the magazine, I found an ad from a ferret farm in another state. I called the farm and spoke with the manager. After discussing ferrets in general, the manager went into a lengthy spiel about another ferret farm that he thought was engaging in unethical practices. He urged me to get involved in the controversy. I declined.
I also went to a pet store at a mall and observed the four or five ferrets the store had for sale. The animals were on exhibit in a window at the front of the store, where they were entertaining shoppers. Their enclosure hadn’t been ferret-proofed very well. I observed the ferrets entertaining shoppers by attempting to make a break for freedom, and I alerted a sales clerk just in time. If I had waited another 30 seconds to rat out the ferrets, they would have “gone over the hill” and disappeared into the mall forever.
When I read the published article, I spotted the word accidently. That’s not the way the word is usually spelled. I checked my hard copy. I had spelled it right. Someone else had changed accidentally to accidently. Readers would think I couldn’t spell correctly.
I probably did way too much research on the Munchkin cat story. On June 12, 1995, Munchkin cats were featured in an article on the front page of The Wall Street Journal. The breed was controversial because of the cats’ short legs that are the result of a natural genetic mutation. Those short kitty legs generated much speculation about the possible health and mobility issues the cats might experience.
I read The Wall Street Journal article and any other newspaper articles I could find. And I probably bought too many cat magazines that featured articles about the Munchkin. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find a local person who owned one.
I did interview the geneticist who was mentioned in the Journal article. I also interviewed another Munchkin breeder from Connecticut—twice. And then I got a bright idea and tried to locate the woman who owned Blackberry, the cat who produced the first litter of kittens in the Munchkin line.
I knew where the woman lived, so I dialed the long distance information operator and got the phone number of a man with her last name. I called the number, but the man I spoke with said the woman no longer lived there. He sounded sad. When I talked to the Connecticut breeder the second time, he told me the woman and her husband had divorced, and he thought she had moved out west somewhere. I still feel sad thinking that I probably talked to her ex-husband and might have caused him more sadness than he already was experiencing.
The Munchkin cat article was published in February 1999, about a year after I wrote it. I skimmed the article, but I didn’t read it word for word. I was sure I would find either a grammar or spelling error in it that, of course, wasn’t mine. And I didn’t want to know.
Postscript: A couple of years ago I read that accidently is (in some circles) an accepted alternate spelling of accidentally. And I recently read the article about dog licensing by mail again. In hindsight, the error I stressed about wasn’t all that bad, and I doubt that anyone noticed it.