What Does a Crossword Puzzle Have to do With Mystery Writing?

Crossword, puzzle, clever.Crossword puzzles are about words, as is writing, so they should be connected, right? It’s time to revisit this topic, which I touched on a few years back.

Regular readers of this blog may recall from that post that I am an avid cruciverbalist; that is, I enjoy doing crosswords. But only one each day, otherwise it could get out of hand. Each night, when it is eight o’clock here in Colorado, I download the next day’s New York Times crossword. Usually I finish it before turning in, but since they get more difficult as the week goes on, the Friday and Saturday puzzles sometimes get finished the next day. Non-puzzlers think the Sunday puzzle is the hardest, but though it is larger, it is really a Wednesday/Thursday level of difficulty. Sunday through Thursday have themes or some kind of trick, which makes them easier. The tough Friday and Saturday puzzles are themeless.

So what does a crossword have to do with writing?

To begin with, they’re both about vocabulary. I, for one, love coming upon a word in a book that I don’t know, forcing me to look it up. It reminds me of the depth of the English language, and it’s also fun to learn something new. I try to put at least one obscure word into each of my books (for my next one, it’s litotes). There are new words, for me at least, popping up all the time in puzzles.

Then there’s humor. I include a bit of humor into each of my books, despite the serious nature homicide, and crossword puzzles are full of it. Themes are often built around puns. In a recent Sunday puzzle entitled “sports page headlines,” (Sundays have titles) the clue “Cold war synopsis” yielded the answer “Yankees defeat Reds.” There were four more headlines like that, equally groan-producing.

A good puzzle forces you to (pardon the cliché) think outside the box. A recent clue “They’re drawn by the bizarre” turned out to be “stares,” and “Lane in a strip” was “Lois.” This is what we solvers call misdirection, in which the constructor and editor try to push you in one direction when the answer is in another. “Reed section” turns out not to be from an orchestra, but simply “marsh.” “Summer” is not the season but rather “totaler.” Isn’t that what we mystery writers try to do all the time? We toss out herrings of various scarlet hues and hope the reader jumps on them when the real answer is somewhere else.

I’ve also found that the solving process is similar to writing in this way: If I am stumped on an answer in a puzzle, especially late in the week, I find that if I get up and do something else for a few minutes, when I return the answer pops onto the page. The amazing human brain works on the problem even when you’re thinking about something else. Same with writing. Stuck on a sentence that just doesn’t want to form? Take a break and eat an apple. When you get back to the computer a wonderful sentence will be ready to flow out through your fingertips.

There will be some cynics out there like Jeffrey Siger who are thinking that all this is just a justification for me to procrastinate when I should be writing. There may be some truth to that. But there has to be some connection between my puzzling and my writing. Look at it this way: Since I wrote my last blog post about crosswords I have managed to write three more books. During that time I did a puzzle every day. Coincidence? I think not.

The fourth book in David P. Wagner’s Rick Montoya Italian Mystery series, Return to Umbria, will be published in November. His website is: http://davidpwagnerauthor.com/