The making of a Cryptic Word Search - part 2

Category: Cryptic blog

Part 2

Once I have a word list for my Cryptic Wordsearch puzzle, it’s time to get working on the title and clues. The title is another cryptic clue, this time one which introduces the theme of the puzzle. For some puzzles, I’ve been told that once you figure out the title, things start making more sense. As an example, if the theme was “bread”, then you start thinking in certain ways. “Rye”, “Sourdough”, “Sliced” and other answers would be easier to see. Of course, “Money” might also be an answer…

Hopefully, when I start on the answers for the puzzle itself, I’ll have plenty to pick from. If it’s only 30 answers (or worse, less), then it gets more challenging. My first pass through is to look for what are often the hardest to come up with from a themed list, double definitions and sounds-like (homophones).

Double definitions are always nice because they often lend themselves to puns. “Pirate digs up his buried torso?” (5)

Homophones are usually hardest to find because, again, I’m constrained by the theme. If I only have 30-40 words, chances are none of them will be a stand-alone homophone.

If I’m lucky I’ll find a way to use some combination of double definitions and homophones together with other wordplay, but overall I’ve discovered that those are the hardest words to pull out of most themes.

On the other hand, some of the themes we use are more general – “starts with the letter ‘s’”, could be one, in which case life becomes easier.

After the first pass, it’s time to go back and look for the more general wordplay, anagram and hidden word clues. Hidden words are generally the easiest, at least in a forward direction. Which I’d deny discovering most of the time (6).  Reversed hidden words are the next thing to check for, and for both of these, I often use a program I’ve created (and rewritten a few times).

The first puzzle books Sudoku-USA published were – surprise, surprise – Sudoku books, but using that program framework I added an ‘anagram’ feature. I went out and got a particularly bad list of dictionary words and wrote code that let me put in a word or sentence and it would come up with possible anagrams. The dictionary, which contained not only English but random foreign words – as well as misspellings – let me at least get ideas for anagrams.

Over time, I expanded the anagram feature to do more general lookups, many of which are important for hidden words. I added the ability to look for ‘words starting with …’, which helps me when I have the first few letters and want to get the next. I also have ‘ends with …’ which helps with the leading portion. For reversed hidden words, I just turn things around and it all works.

As to general word play, cutting and pasting, inserting and all the other tricks, I still use my anagram window. One of its other important features is that if I put in the answer and below it the letters comprising the results of the clue, it will tell me if they match – in any order.

Let’s say the answer is “implied”. I put that in the window and then say that the clue components are “I’m piled” (You might think I’m piled messily) and it will tell me that ‘impiled’ are all part of the clue. That’s not a very good clue, way too easy, but it’s the kind of thing my program is good for recognizing.

When I’ve got my 30 candidate clues, it’s time to start entering them in the database. I create a puzzle “shell”, a place to put the clues, and then start entering them. As I do, the program checks to see if I’ve ever used that answer – or even one similar – in a previous puzzle. As a rule, we don’t like having the same answer appear in the same book, and also check against previous books and sample puzzles. If you’ve solved as many cryptic crosswords as I have, you’ve probably seen ones you KNOW you’ve seen before. My goal is to prevent that from happening. If I do reuse an answer, the clue will be significantly different.

Once the clues are entered it’s time to generate the puzzle. I’ll cover that in Part 3.

The making of a Cryptic Word Search - part 1

Category: Cryptic blog

Part 1

A cryptic word search is a combination between a Cryptic Crossword and a Word Search puzzle.

Typically, a cryptic crossword is in a lattice style grid, with lots of individual black spaces separating the cross and down answers, unlike most US "normal" crosswords where words intersect more often. Clues for a cryptic crossword have two parts, a wordplay portion and a definition. When solved, the answers are entered into a grid as you would with an ordinary crossword, with intersecting letters providing a guide for if you're right or wrong.

Standard word search puzzles provide a filled-in grid of letters together with a list of words - usually all part of some theme - that you then circle. In many word searches, the letters that are not circled then spell out a "secret message".

Our cryptic word-searches combine these two concepts. Instead of providing a list of words, we provide a list of cryptic crossword style clues. When you solve the clue, you then search through the word grid looking for the answer, which may appear left to right, right to left, top to bottom, bottom to top or in any of the four diagonal directions. We also place a secret message in the grid, however unlike most word searches where you read the message left to right, top to bottom, ours may be inserted - otherwise.

Most cryptic word-searches are themed, and the title, presented as another cryptic clue, provides a hint to that theme.

Coming up with new and interesting themes can be a bit of a challenge. For the most part, we prefer not to repeat themes from book to book, so each new book needs 40 new themes. There's also the problem that a theme can be too restrictive, that it can make the answers too similar. For example, let's say the theme was "colors". We could get away with "ruby" as a gem (and a color), "ebony" as a magazine, "green" as a vegetable, but since our standard puzzles contain 30 different answers, we'd run out of decent definitions (and probably colors) far too soon.

Ideally, we come up with a list of 50+ answers for a theme. That allows us to go through them and find answers that lend themselves to wordplay, puns, double meanings and all the others tricks we use. 

In part 2, I'll discuss the tech we use with our puzzles, technology that allows us to develop the best clues and with the fewest repeated answers (and sometimes clues), unlike many of the cryptic crossword books currently in print.