Saturday, January 29, 2011

Parnell Hall: Constructing Crossword Puzzles (Mystery Readers Journal)

This Author! Author! essay by Parnell Hall appears in the Mystery Readers Journal: Hobbies, Crafts & Special Interests (Volume 26:4). To order this issue, go HERE and scroll down. Available as hardcopy or .pdf

Parnell Hall is the author of the Puzzle Lady crossword puzzle mysteries, the Stanley Hastings private eye novels, and the Steve Winslow courtroom dramas. His music video of the 2010 American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, "The Sunday Morning, 7th Puzzle, Fear of 4th Place Blues," can be seen on YouTube, along with several of his music videos about mystery writing.

Constructing Crossword Puzzles by Parnell Hall

When I set out to write the Puzzle Lady crossword puzzle mysteries, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I just thought having a crossword puzzle connected to a mystery would be a neat hook that might get the book published and perhaps even read.

So I created Cora Felton, a little old lady with a nationally syndicated crossword puzzle column, who solves crime on the side. I also made her a total fraud. Cora is the Milli Vanilli of the crossword puzzle community, whose smiling face adorns the column, but whose niece, Sherry Carter, actually writes it.

This, of course, results in the Superman syndrome—Cora Felton has a secret identity she has to protect. This is a huge problem for her, since crime seems to flourish in the small town of Bakerhaven, Connecticut, particularly crimes involving crossword puzzles, and the chief of police is always asking her to solve them. Cora not only hates crosswords, she couldn't solve one with a gun to her head.

I am not much better. When I set out to write the series, I hadn't done a crossword in twenty years, and I wasn't good then. I started doing the New York Times daily puzzles, just for practice. If you've never done them, watch out, they suck you in. Monday's puzzle is very easy. Tuesday's is a little harder, Wednesday's is harder than that, and by Saturday the clues are so hard they might as well be in Sanskrit.

I practiced hard, got a little more proficient, and entered the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, the national competition held each year in Stamford, Connecticut. I didn't know what to expect, but the first puzzle was pretty easy, I was just flying through it, and I felt pretty good. I got about halfway done and I looked up and the room was empty! Everyone had finished and left. Out of 254 contestants I came in 250th, just ahead of the four people who failed to turn in a paper.

I wrote a song about my experiences, entitled "The Sunday Morning, 7th Puzzle, Fear of 4th Place Blues." I don't actually have those blues, by the way. In this year's competition, for instance, for me to have made the finals, 574 people would have to have done very poorly on the last puzzle.

But I met Will Shortz, the New York Times crossword editor, who runs the tournament. He read my first book, A Clue for the Puzzle Lady, and gave me a wonderful blurb for the cover: "Fresh, funny, and ingeniously devised, it kept me guessing right down to the end, just like a good crossword!"

Of course, he wasn't reviewing my puzzle.

In the early books I constructed the puzzles myself. This was a mistake. Constructing a puzzle took me almost as long as writing the book. Plus I got things wrong. When A Clue for the Puzzle Lady came out, National Champion Ellen Ripstein emailed me to point out errors in the puzzle. For instance, the clue "Tipped to show respect," for the answer, "Hat," in addition to not being very good, was also incorrect. The phrase did not describe a noun. To yield the word, "Hat," the clue would have to be, "It's tipped to show respect."

Since then, Ellen Ripstein has edited all the puzzles in my books, catching the errors before they go to press.

I also got someone to construct the crosswords. For the first few books I foolishly hung onto the notion I had to do them myself. I figured since the crosswords had to contain clues to the murders, there was no way I could program someone else to do that.

That all changed with And a Puzzle to Die On, in which the Puzzle Lady has a birthday (she's not saying which one), and Harvey Beerbaum, a genuine cruciverbalist, who was always causing Cora aggravation though his mistaken idea that she actually liked crossword puzzles, persuades several famous New York Times constructors to shower her with crossword puzzle birthday cards. That didn't please Cora any, but it was a huge relief for me.

After that, I left the constructing to the experts. Frequent New York Times constructor Manny Nosowsky, famous for his diabolically ingenious puzzles with barely any black squares in them, offered to construct puzzles for me. I just had to figure out a way to let him do it. The solution was, I would write the theme entries, the long answers I needed the puzzles to contain, and Manny would construct the puzzles around them. The theme entry was usually a four-line poem. Since crosswords are symmetrical, the first and fourth lines had to be the same number of letters, as did the second and third. In Dead Man's Puzzle, for instance, Manny embeds the poem:

By this gun
I am cursed
But I never
Came first

In this case, Manny assumes the identity of the victim, constructing the dead man's last puzzle. In Stalking the Puzzle Lady, Manny constructed puzzles for the killer. He's also done puzzles for the Puzzle Lady column. And he loves to throw in tricks. I can say, "Give me some poker terms," and he'll scatter a half-a-dozen throughout the puzzle, and I can have Cora notice that and realize it's a clue.

Manny even constructed a puzzle that could be changed into another puzzle. For the book You Have the Right To Remain Puzzled, Cora gets roped into creating a puzzle for a young housewife to help break the news to her husband that she dented the car. Sherry, who's just been proposed to by young reporter Aaron Grant, and is way too distracted to construct anything, takes a puzzle "My Apology" by Benny Southstreet from a book, and changes the last line of the sarcastic poem, from:

My apology I'll
Not prolong
I'm so sorry
You were wrong


If I went wrong

Which would have worked perfectly, if Benny Southsteet hadn't sued the Puzzle Lady for plagiarism and then gotten murdered, making her the prime suspect.

But that's okay.

That's the type of puzzle I can deal with.

Just so long as I don't have to construct crosswords.

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