The Hardest Kind of Job: Candy Moulton on Freelancing

For more than 30 years, Candy Moulton has worked as a writer, editor, researcher, and photographer.  Most of that time she has been freelancing.  In the spirit of the Old West, she turned a hardship (loss of her job) into a new life (as a freelancer).

There is no salary in freelancing,” Moulton said, matter of factly. “There is income that you generate by finding good opportunities and producing solid material and hitting deadlines.”

These days, Moulton edits Roundup Magazine, is a contributing editor for True West magazine, and writes for such publications as Persimmon Hill, American Cowboy, Wild West, Wren, The Fence Post, and the Casper Star-Tribune. Her 14 books include Chief Joseph: Guardian of the People and Everyday Life Among American Indians from 1800-1900. Her biography of Valentine T. McGillycuddy is due out this summer.

Moulton also has written and produced award-winning films and television documentaries, developed AV exhibits for the National Historic Trails Interpretive Center in Casper, Wyoming, and created programming for the Oregon-California Trails Association.  If any one similarity runs through all of Moulton’s work, it is her clear-eyed vision and her passion for the West.  She currently works as a freelance producer for BPI (Boston Productions).

On a personal note, Candy Moulton taught me more about writing Westerns than she probably realizes.  After many years of reading Westerns and histories of the West, I picked up a copy of her The Writer’s Guide to Everyday Life in the Wild West from 1840-1900 and was astounded at how well she clarified for me the differences between the mythic and the historic West.

Below, Moulton tells the story of her career with an emphasis on determination and reliability.

How long have you been working as a full-time freelancer and what sort of work do you do?

Candy Moulton: I have been freelancing for 29 years. Holy cow! That’s a long time to be in the trenches. I didn’t begin by design, or choice. I was a weekly newspaper editor in 1982 when two facts of life converged: the paper sold and I had my first child. While I was on my allowed-by-law maternity leave I was called in by the new owner and told my job was no longer there; he had hired a new editor (his man). Furious, upset, scared, I was devastated because I loved weekly newspapering and did not see a way to continue in that field where I lived.

So I became a freelance writer. Initially I wrote for the county seat daily newspaper and then for Wyoming’s largest daily newspaper. To build my “base” of writing income I did what I knew best—news! But I did a lot of other things during the first couple of years to provide an income flow: I filed for and collected unemployment, substitute taught at the school, worked for a belt buckle manufacturing company, created newsletters for local nonprofit groups (getting a small paycheck in return).

I covered news in my community and county, wrote about agriculture and public land management, courts, cops, the state prison. I covered sewer and water meetings, murder trials, hostage situations, and myriad other issues. I branched out to other newspapers, and then to magazine work (I’d had my first magazine sale when I was still in high school). Ultimately I wrote a book, a nonfiction biography of a horse! Then I wrote another book, and another; now I have 14 books, all nonfiction Western history, published and I am working on two more. I have edited an anthology, and co-edited an encyclopedia that will be released this summer. I’ve written and produced media for museums, and a feature length documentary film, “In Pursuit of a Dream”, that won the Spur Award, several film festival awards, and which is now available on DVD through Landmark Media.

I edit two periodicals, the Western Writers of America Roundup and the Oregon-California Trails Association newsletter, News From the Plains.

I have become involved in media production and currently work for BPI (Boston Productions) as an executive producer. While I work for the company, I am not a staff employee with regular benefits, etc., but rather work on a contract basis.

I write regularly for a number of magazines, and still do a bit of newspaper work.

I basically do anything that involves writing that makes me a buck.

What is a typical day like for you? How is it different than a traditional “day job”?

Candy Moulton: In freelancing there is no such thing as a “typical” day. It is necessary to juggle lots of different projects in order to make a steady income. One day may be spent writing news or magazine articles, or researching or working on a book project; it may involve sales calls, tracking expenses for tax purposes, filing, cleaning my desk so I can find that one sticky note I know is there somewhere with Joe Doe’s phone number on it and I need to talk to Joe for an article or other project, washing the clothes, feeding the cat, taking a walk, sitting in the hot tub under the stars.

That’s the joy of freelancing… you get to do it all at some point or another… and you set the schedule so if you want to take a walk instead of sit in your office… well, you can do it. But of course, if you have deadlines to hit, you may end up writing til two in the morning.

All that said, I work as a freelance writer. And that means I spend at least 8-10 hours a day working (writing, researching, etc.) And I do that every day…Weekends and weekdays are really all just work days for me. Occasionally I spend a day doing nothing but watching TV movies. On average, I put in 60 hours per week; sometimes far more.

Is there anything you wish you’d known before you took the plunge into freelancing?

Candy Moulton: That it is the absolute hardest kind of job you can have.

What are some of the frustrations of freelancing and how do you handle them?

Candy Moulton: There is no backup plan. If you don’t produce, you don’t get a paycheck. You will need to pay your own medical insurance, retirement contribution, social security and all those pesky expenses—from paperclips to buying a new computer or camera, and tires for your car every year because you put so many miles on going from one assignment to another.

What’s the best part?

Candy Moulton: Being my own boss. Working (for the most part) on projects that I want to work on and creating something that is uniquely mine.

Is there a project that you simply couldn’t have pulled off if you’d been working at a full-time day job?

Candy Moulton: My books. All of them. No way to find the time to research and write as I’ve done had I been beholden to some other boss.

Are there any ways in which freelancing is differently challenging for a woman than a man?

Candy Moulton: No. It’s a job just like any other. Except I would say, if your spouse is not supportive then no matter whether you are a man or a woman it could be made more difficult.

Any parting words? Words of encouragement or caution?

Candy Moulton: Don’t become a freelance writer if you think it is easy, fun, glamorous, exciting. It is really none of those things. Because you eat or not depending on how hard you work, it is just that hard work. Don’t expect to take vacations; you will never have another. You will always be working, looking for a story angle, taking photographs for something you might be able to write and sell later. Don’t buy anything on credit. You don’t know when you will get your next paycheck to cover the bill. Instead, save the money and then go ahead and use your credit card for convenience but pay the bill in full when it arrives in your mailbox. Save, save, save. You cannot predict when your computer, camera, printer, car will die. Because those things are required for your income, you will need repair or replacement immediately if the unthinkable happens so you darned well better have some money tucked away to cover such emergencies.

I give a talk about How to Survive as a Freelancer. The biggest tip is to network. Join a writing organization, attend a conference, meet editors, other writers and researchers. Knowing people can be the ticket to pulling off an assignment.

You don’t have to be the best or most literary writer on the planet to survive; you do have to be one of the most determined, task-oriented, reliable writers on the planet to survive.

All that said, I cannot imagine doing my work any other way. I love the challenge of constantly juggling different projects, of meeting new people. I’m constantly learning in subjects I would not normally explore. For example right now I’m working on projects for a zoo about Asian elephants, one a different project for a natural history museum about Native American languages, a book about Western migration, and I’m proposing on projects related to prairie ecosystems, rodeo, and Lincoln automobiles.

As a freelancer I’ve been to the top of the world’s largest wind turbine, a mile underground in a coal mine, in slot canyons, through wilderness areas, and I’ve met some of the most incredible, interesting, inspiring people in the country and been able to share their stories. Plus I’ve learned to drive mules and oxen, how to pan for gold, and what it takes to rescue stranded snowmobilers or hostages.


Jeremy L. C. Jones is a freelance writer, editor, and teacher.  He is the staff Interviewer for Clarkesworld Magazine and a frequent contributor to Kobold Quarterly.  He teaches at Wofford College and Montessori Academy in Spartanburg, SC.  He is also the director of Shared Worlds, a creative writing and world-building camp for teenagers that he and Jeff VanderMeer designed in 2006.

One thought on “The Hardest Kind of Job: Candy Moulton on Freelancing

  1. I am constantly amazed at the number of projects Candy handles, and handles not just well, but amazingly well. She is a great example of how to live the freelance life.

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