Gwen Sjogren

Where do your crossword theme ideas come from?

Having designed over 600 puzzles for my books, I feel very fortunate that ideas are still coming! Sometimes, they emerge from dedicated brainstorming, particularly with the Canadiana, because there’s so much content I can plumb. For non-Canadian themes, I might hear a word or phrase that inspires me. Or, strangely, I often come up with the title before I develop the puzzle. Sometimes, my favourites come from ideas that don’t work out that I have to rejig, like #71 in Book 15. That theme started out as something quite different. Overall, I just try to go where my ideas take me.

Do you design your grids?

I usually choose grids from my crossword design software, but a couple of books ago I began designing a few each time just for visual interest and also as a challenge for me.

What else keeps you challenged as a crossword designer?

With each book, I try to create a few one-offs, say, a circle-in-the-square anagram format, or using rebuses as a design element. In Book 15, I deliberately designed ten without any fill-in-the-blank clues, which makes writing the clues more difficult, and may give the solvers a greater challenge, too. One of my other goals is to use grids with wide-open corners, meaning longer words stacked on top of each other to minimize three- and four-letter words where I can. At the end of the day, though, the clues rule! That’s what I love the most. It’s still a thrill to write a funny, punny clue.

Why do you sometimes use words that solvers might not know?

A couple of reasons. One is trying to avoid using the same words multiple times. That’s a big obstacle with smaller words, which can come up 10-15 times in a book this size (AMIR/EMIR are the culprits in this one). So this leads to hard vs. easier word choice trade-offs. As well, with themed puzzles, there’s less leeway in the words I can use. Once I lay in the theme clues, the software has to work around them and sometimes it can’t do that without using some less-than-desirable filler. Some solvers do tell me they like seeing words they can add to their vocabulary, though.

You must be a heck of a Scrabble player!

It’s true I know a lot of words, but I’m always learning new ones. One bizarre thing that happens—so often it’s ridiculous—is that a word I don’t know comes up in a grid and sure as shooting, I’ll come across it in something I’m reading or listening to within hours or days of designing the puzzle. In this book, this happened with LIMINAL, ALACRITY, CAVIL, BOSE, MAGE(S), GASPER, TWO TICKS—the list goes on and on. I call it “the coincidence of crosswords” and it’s amazing how frequently it occurs.