Writing Inspiration: With this Puzzle, I Thee Kill

Crossword Puzzles Inspire Book by Parnell Hall


If I tell you where I got the idea for AND A PUZZLE TO DIE ON, do you promise not to tell anyone? See, I was motivated by laziness and a desire to avoid work. I know that’s not the type of thing to be admitting, but it actually produced one of the best books in my Puzzle Lady mystery series.

Tell you why.

In the books, Cora Felton, the Puzzle Lady, has a nationally syndicated crossword puzzle column, but she can’t do crossword puzzles–her niece, Sherry, constructs them for her. I sympathize with Cora, because I share her lack of expertise. When I started writing the Puzzle Lady books, I had never constructed a crossword puzzle in my life. Despite this, I have created all the puzzles for the first five books in the series. For me, this was a tremendous chore — creating the puzzles was harder than writing the books.

In doing research for the series, I have competed in the National Crossword Puzzle Tournament held every year in Stamford, Connecticut. I use the word ‘competed’ loosely. The first year I came in 250th out of 254 contestants, finishing just ahead of the 4 people who failed to turn in a paper.

But in doing so, I met many of the brighter lights of the crossword puzzle community, including Will Shortz, the crossword puzzle editor of The New York Times.

Which is where I got my idea. What if I had some of these professionals do the puzzles for me?

Now, I wouldn’t want you to think it took me six books to get that obvious idea. I had it all along. The problem was, since the puzzles were woven into the story, I had to make them up myself in order to build the plot around them.

But after the four rhyming acrostics for A PUZZLE IN A PEAR TREE, and the cryptograms and Enigma code of WITH THIS PUZZLE, I THEE KILL, I was frazzled. My first thought on writing my next book was, “How can I get someone else to do this for me?”

Which was the inspiration for AND A PUZZLE TO DIE ON. I decided that as a surprise for Cora’s birthday, nerdy cruciverbalist Harvey Beerbaum would get several famous crossword constructors to send her birthday wishes in the form of crossword puzzles. They would all fit into the book because they didn’t have to be specific to the plot–I could give the constructors a one page fact sheet about Cora et al, and let them play with that.

So I contacted Will Shortz, and asked if he had any recommendations. Did he ever! I managed to line up frequent New York Times contributors Nancy Salomon, Manny Nosowsky, Kathy Millhauser, Emily Cox and Henry Rathvon to construct puzzles for me.

All right, you’re saying, how is that inspiration? It’s a good idea, perhaps a little slow to be implemented, but having famous pros do the puzzles certainly can’t hurt. But how did that inspire the story?

Well, when I started writing AND A PUZZLE TO DIE ON, birthday card crossword puzzles was the ONLY idea I had for the book. I had nothing else. No other preconceived notions. No other plots.

And a wonderful thing happened. Without the burden of having to weave a crossword puzzle into the story, I was suddenly free to do anything I wanted. And so was Cora. Before I knew it, she was off on an adventure investigating the case of a vicious murderer who’d been tried and convicted 20 years ago. And I could throw in plot twist upon plot twist until-serendipity-toward the end of the book one of the crossword puzzles furnished a clue and led her to the solution of the crime.

So, I had a lot of fun writing the book. And it’s full of great puzzles by famous constructors. And, because of the way their puzzles are used, the constructors get full credit, not just in the acknowledgment, but also in the text. As the puzzle cards arrive, Sherry Carter, the crossword whiz, is knocked out by who sent them. “Emily Cox and Henry Rathvon! Cora, do you know who that is? They do the acrostics in the Sunday New York Times!”

Meanwhile, Cora is off on one of her most exciting adventures ever.

Just don’t tell anyone what inspired it.

Parnell Hall’s new Puzzle Lady Mystery, AND A PUZZLE TO DIE ON, will be published in November 2004. You can read his current mystery, WITH THIS PUZZLE, I THEE KILL, which is on sale now.

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