Clues come from far and wide

Former writer creates Canada crosswords

by Jodi DeLong

(Reprinted with permission)

If you've ever pondered over a clue in the Sunday Herald's North of 49 Crossword puzzle, you may have also wondered about the puzzle's design itself. Who creates these puzzles? How does an author go about creating a puzzle? Are there rules about what can and can't be included?

Kathleen Hamilton has been creating the North of 49 puzzles for 10 years.

While developing a career as a freelance writer, she spotted an article on how to make and sell crosswords as a way to supplement income. She tried her hand at it and really enjoyed the process, using a Canadian theme as her motif, and continued creating puzzles until she had 25 of them built.

At this point, she created a booklet which she had printed, and distributed herself to a modest response. Not one to be discouraged, she created a larger book of 50 puzzles for which a designer friend created a lovely cover. Several bookstores in Victoria, where she was living at the time, carried her book but the national chains wouldn't give her the time of day.

While selling her book at Word on the Street in Toronto in September 1998, Hamilton sold a copy to the editor of the Toronto Star, who told her that his readers were asking for a Canadian-content type puzzle.

Within a few months she was providing a weekly Canadian puzzle for the Star, and as she describes it, "From that point on, crosswords provided my bread and butter. Freelance writing took a back seat."

Today Hamilton's puzzles are found in a number of newspapers, including The Sunday Herald, and are also collected into seven bestselling books of O Canada Crosswords, now published and distributed by Nightwood Editions of Vancouver.

Each book has a unique and colourful cover, with all but Vol. 4 being designed using folk art from a variety of Nova Scotian artists, including Bradford and Ransford Naugler, James Zwicker, Phyllis Cosman and other artists exhibited by the Black Sheep Gallery in West Jeddore. Hamilton says she "very much appreciates the goodwill shown by this gallery and these artists," in agreeing to the use of their art on the O Canada Crosswords covers.

Crossword puzzles, Hamilton says, "offer the pleasure of recognizing patterns. Each word is a pattern, and after you get several letters in the space, the word jumps out. Your brain has recognized a pattern, or completed a pattern, and that gives pleasure. The pleasure can be addictive!"

Witness the thousands of different puzzle books, online puzzles, and even computer puzzle games that you can download to your computer to play.

Hamilton says that research shows crossword solving may help ward off dementia, and it can certainly hone your vocabulary. "I'm never at a loss for a word," she laughs, "and I'm sure it's because I do crosswords!"

Hamilton uses crossword software, to which she's made extensive modifications, to generate her puzzles.

"I've had to input all the Canadian content, and also had to edit the dictionary that came with the software. The clues were only dictionary definitions."

She creates several possible solutions, then, when she's satisfied with a crossword that looks challenging, she starts making the clues.

She keeps a record of her clues so as not to repeat the same ones too often, but also says, "when I introduce a new Canadian fact, I repeat it three times in three puzzles intentionally."

Understandably, Hamilton has done and continues to do a great deal of research, including on diverse topics she previously had no interest in, including opera, hockey, and pop music.

"I couldn't do it without Google," she says.

What makes a good puzzle? Lots of lively, interesting but everyday words, of course, without contrived abbreviations that no one uses or esoteric words on their own.

While she will include diseases in her puzzles -- which is taboo in American puzzles -- Hamilton avoids brand names, most Biblical references, and demeaning terms or those that might make people flinch. Rather than define "sables" as furs, she uses "martens" as a clue. The clue must be a perfect substitute for the answer in a sentence but not duplicate part of the answer, and if there's a foreign word or abbreviation, the clue has to hint at this.

Just how difficult are the puzzles? Hamilton says everyone seems to use the New York Times crossword as a benchmark, which increases in difficulty throughout the week. She says her puzzles are of about the same difficulty as the NYT Wednesday and Thursday puzzles.

"I try to make the clues challenging, not frustrating, and they're always fair, unlike some of those in other crosswords."

Normally, Hamilton creates two puzzles every other week, and now has over 500 to her credit. She says while she enjoys thinking up new clues and researching information for the puzzles, her work is not the same as freelance writing, where you can become really absorbed and lose all sense of time. Her plan is to continue until she has enough puzzles for 10 books, but may well continue to create puzzles for her website beyond that point.

Hamilton has a secondary passion, which she hopes will one day see as much popularity as her puzzles. After reading a book titled Essence and Alchemy, about creating perfumes using natural botanical materials, she tried her hand at the process and was instantly hooked. She's been selling her creations locally to friends and acquaintances but expects to expand the awareness of her line later this year.

Jodi DeLong is a freelance writer who lives in Scots Bay.

2007 The Halifax Herald Limited