2016-08-01 / Features

Russell Frank Gets a Clue

The Penn State associate professor of journalism and — more importantly — renowned cruciverbalist switched from solver to creator for this month’s issue all about summer fun. See how many answers you come across; be sure to write them all down.
Russell Frank

I’ll let you in on a little secret. There is a name in the crossword puzzle that appears on the opposite page that I had never heard before — until I constructed the puzzle.

When I was asked to create a crossword for State College Magazine, I had to confess that I was a complete novice. After a long apprenticeship at my daddy’s elbow, I have been solving other people’s puzzles for decades, but I had never developed one of my own. I said I would try. I had no idea if I would succeed.

Happily for the first-time constructor, there is, as they say, an app for that. The one I used is called Crossword Express ( It provides blank grids, which is already a whole lot easier than trying to fill in the spaces on a piece of graph paper. (No erasing!)

Crossword Express also seems to offer a bunch of shortcuts aimed at making a constructor’s life easier. To use them, I would have had to read the instructions and, well, I’m one of those guys who is too eager to plunge into a project to bother about knowing what I’m doing before I start doing it. (This approach has not served me well when tackling home repairs.)

My mission was to craft a State College-themed puzzle, which meant that, in the tradition of the New York Times and other puzzle-purveying newspapers, the long answers and maybe a few of the short ones would relate to the theme. So I began by brainstorming the long ones. Hint: They’re all awful puns.

Next I chose a grid that the long answers would fit into. You might think that you could insert a 10-letter answer anywhere and then blacken the spaces before it and after it. It turns out, though, that the standard crossword puzzle is symmetrical, so I had to find a grid that could accommodate those long answers.

Once I had my grid, I plugged in my long answers and then began filling in the shorter answers around them. What’s tricky about constructing a puzzle, of course, is that all the letters you fill in going across must work as parts of answers going down. That’s where all the erasing would come in if one were working on graph paper.

There was a lot of trial and error. I thought for certain that I would paint myself into a corner and have to start over, which I dreaded doing.

It never happened. I suspect all constructors have these moments when the x-word gods smile down on them and bestow the only answer that could work in that space. Here, too, the digital universe is the constructor’s friend.

Let’s say everything else I fill in leaves me with a five-letter word, the last four letters of which are N-U-T-I. (I’m making up this example in order not to give away any real answers.) It looks like I’m in big trouble, right? But before I begin making wholesale changes I figure, who knows, maybe ANUTI means something I’m not aware of. ENUTI? INUTI? And a-Googling I would go.

It worked: SNUTI turns out to be, oh, a figure from Finnish mythology! (Again, a made-up example.) Each time I found a word or a name that I didn’t know was a word or a name, I was thrilled beyond measure.

Once all the squares were filled in a way that made sense both across and down, I moved into Phase 2 of the process: writing the clues. The challenge here is deciding the degree of difficulty. Say the answer is WAR. There are a lot of ways you can go.

“Armed conflict?” Too easy.
“‘____ and Peace?’” Ditto.
“Good for absolutely nothing?” Too hard, maybe. True, it references a hit protest song, but it goes back more than 40 years.
“‘____ of the Worlds’?” Just right?

You, the solvers, will have to be the judges. I hope you have fun with it. I did. In fact, I enjoyed the process so much more than I expected to that I’m adding puzzle making to the list of activities that I hope will keep me off the streets and out of trouble when I quit working.

Not long ago I read a short story about a retired guy who spends his days spooning ice cream out of the container while watching baseball games. It terrified me. I could easily be that guy.

A friend of mine didn’t see the problem. Sounded pretty idyllic to him. But my mother drilled into me the importance of feeling productive every day. Much as I love gorging on frozen desserts and gazing at overpaid athletes as they adjust their batting gloves, I feel a lot better knowing that I can also while away my time devising fiendish crossword puzzles.

Try it yourself! Click HERE to download Frank's "We Are ... Pun State!" crossword puzzle, clues and answers.

Happy solving! •SCM

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