Date: March 18, 2003
Byline: Anne Orgren
Constructive creationsSARATOGA SPRINGS In the world of crossword puzzle construction, Cathy Millhauser is big. Millhauser has created about 30 crossword puzzles for the Sunday New York Times under the editorship of Will Shortz possibly more than anyone else.
The New York Times Sunday crossword puzzle is considered the top of the line for crossword fans. A benchmark question for hard-core solvers is, "How long does it take you to solve the Sunday New York Times puzzle?"
The New York Times also publishes many of Millhauser's puzzles on Thursdays.
Millhauser is "one of the best (New York Times puzzle constructors)," Shortz said. "She packs in more theme material than most, and she's genuinely funny. Her puns aren't strained. ... She's an all-around puzzle maker."
"I never solved crossword puzzles as a kid," Millhauser said. "Old-style puzzles tended to have obscure words." They were full of references to "obscure rivers or obsolete coins" words used mainly by crossword puzzle creators and solvers. Specialized crossword puzzle dictionaries contained lists of these words and their definitions.
In recent years, the crossword puzzle has changed.
"Now (puzzles) are more for entertainment," Millhauser said.
Millhauser got involved in crossword puzzles in her 30s, when she started solving the new style of puzzles.
"I like puzzles with a theme; with wordplay and punning. I almost always have a theme (in my puzzles); I have puns in the theme and also in the clues," she said.
"Crossword puzzles are easier (now) in that almost all the vocabulary is familiar; you don't need to know the name of a Hawaiian river (to solve them)," Shortz said. "But to compensate, the clues are trickier now. There's a lot more playfulness in the clues. A crossword dictionary won't help you nowadays you have to use your bean."
To learn how to construct crossword puzzles, "I found books and took a course offered at the local high school," Millhauser said. "I got a list of markets and worked my way up to the local paper. Then I got into The (New York) Times and other markets."
Building a crossword puzzle is more complicated than one might think. Here are what Shortz describes as "the basic rules" of puzzle construction: "There should be no unchecked letters, meaning that every letter has to be in two answers across and down. There are no two-letter answers. ... You can't repeat a word."
As far as the pattern of black squares, "If you rotate the puzzle 180 degrees, it should look the same as it did right side up," Shortz said. In addition, "(The black squares) can't cut the puzzle into two or more portions you should be able to go from anywhere (in the puzzle) to anywhere else without picking up your pencil to jump over a black square."
"A lot of people decide to try (puzzle construction) and see how it is," Shortz said, "then they get wiped out" spending hours and hours on the effort and getting nowhere.
"It's almost an art form; it's a process," Millhauser said.
Whether she is constructing a daily-sized puzzle (15 by 15 squares) or a Sunday puzzle (usually 21 by 21 squares), Millhauser begins by building the "skeleton" of the puzzle with eight to 10 theme-related words.
Then she adds the "filler words," unrelated to the theme, to complete the puzzle grid. In a typical Sunday-sized puzzle, there are about 140 words, with no more than 78 black squares, according to Millhauser.
"(You try to) avoid the little words that pop up over and over," she said. Small words with a lot of vowels, such as "Oreo," tend to show up often in puzzles.
After she finishes the grid, Millhauser writes the clues. "I'm thinking (of clues) as I go along for the theme words," she said.
The clues for the smaller words "get wordplay as well," Millhauser said. She uses punning clues, such as "Catch the wave," with the answer being, not "surf," but "hear" (as in, receive the sound wave); or "Went through the air" as a clue not for "flew," but for "sang."
Millhauser also uses homophones, words that sound alike but are spelled differently. Her clue for the word "row" in a recent puzzle was "Perform a scull operation."
"I take an ordinary phrase and change its meaning to be funny," Millhauser said. For example, a clue for "In your face" might be "Like Botox injections." The answer to the clue "Like a house cat's no-no"? "Outside the box."
"I love when something current happens and I can pounce on it," Millhauser said. For example, she created a puzzle which was recently accepted for publication by the Wall Street Journal with a theme linking Martha Stewart's recent legal troubles with titles of Jimmy Stewart movies.
Although she makes her puzzles challenging, Millhauser said adapting an old expression "It's not how hard you make it, it's how you make it hard. ... (You) don't have an intersection where across and down are both ungettable."
Millhauser does a lot of research for words and clues. She uses the Internet to do much of the research; but she also owns a wide range of books: about crossword puzzles and how to make them; about baseball slang; about dog and cat names; famous people's dogs; business and campaign slogans; holidays; nicknames; dialect; idioms; cities and more.
It usually takes Millhauser about a week to construct a Sunday puzzle. Daily-sized 15-by-15 puzzles take her a few days to build. Since she began constructing puzzles in the mid-1980s, she has created about 700 crossword puzzles.
Building a puzzle is only one phase of freelance crossword construction; the next piece of the process is getting it published.
"I always query (send the idea to a publisher in advance) before I submit a puzzle," Millhauser said, "because you can only submit to one editor at a time, and it can take a long time up to a year between the time a puzzle is sent and the time it's published."
On the publisher's side, Shortz explained what he looks for in crossword puzzle submissions:
"If there's a theme, it should be something that's fresh, very specific, and focused," he said. "If there's a pun in one (clue), it should be the same (type of pun) in all of them. There should be fresh, lively vocabulary . ... I prefer (a puzzle to have) all common vocabulary." Also a plus is the use of rare letters, such as J, Q, X and Z.
Millhauser estimates that about 10 to 50 percent of her clues are edited, "for variety, difficulty or puns," she said. Editors also check for errors "People love the idea of trying to catch the New York Times editor in a mistake," Millhauser said.
Finally, the puzzle is published for crossword fans to solve.
As a constructor, Millhauser appreciates crossword solvers: "There's nothing more fun than happening on someone who's solving one of your crossword puzzles," she said.
Her puzzles in the New York Times are syndicated, and are published in The Saratogian six weeks after they are in the New York Times. Coincidentally, Millhauser had puzzles in both the New York Times and The Saratogian on March 6.
Millhauser has also created a complete book of her own puzzles, entitled "Humorous Crossword Puzzles." The book has a scheduled release date in March and should be in bookstores any day now.
In all her diverse puzzles, Millhauser has a simple goal: "I like to do puzzles that will make you laugh out loud," she said.
Individuals or businesses interested in custom crossword puzzles may contact Cathy Millhauser by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org, or by mail, 235 Caroline St., Saratoga Springs, NY 12866.