Tucson CitizenTucson Citizen

Wordplay is gift of crossword puzzle creator

Crossword puzzle creator Bonnie L. Gentry poses between laptops.

Crossword puzzle creator Bonnie L. Gentry poses between laptops.

PHOENIX – There are computer programs that help crossword puzzle creators such as Bonnie L. Gentry of Scottsdale with mundane tasks such as deciding where the black squares go and suggesting short words.

But most of the work that goes into a crossword happens away from the computer. It comes with Gentry scribbling ideas and odd words on slips of paper, trying to come up with the creative and clever themes that make crossword fans smile.

Gentry is one of a small number of puzzle creators across the country and, she said, one of just three in Arizona. She hasn’t met the other two. More casual puzzle solvers might think it’s all about figuring out 6 Across and 14 Down. But daily solvers, Gentry said, appreciate the theme in most puzzles. Those themes come in long answers that do not intersect on the page, but do connect through clever wordplay.

It was her skill in coming up with those themes that led Gentry to a second career as a crossword creator. By day, the senior financial adviser at Merrill Lynch tries to make the numbers fit. By night and on weekends, she lets the letters take over.

Gentry wasn’t a big crossword fan – or cruciverbalist – when she started creating them several years ago.

“As a solver, I have problems solving them,” she said.

But she did appreciate the themes and decided to give it a shot. Her first puzzle was published in September 2003. Her puzzles have since appeared in the Los Angeles Times, New York Times and several books. They also appear in the top right corner of The Arizona Republic’s comics page.

Rich Norris, who edits the Los Angeles Times crossword, said Gentry’s originality sets her apart.

“She’s very creative,” he said.

Norris said he recently received a puzzle from her that had the word “Plutoed” as an answer. The word came from the International Astronomical Union’s 2006 decision to demote Pluto from its status as a planet.

“When I see something like that, that’s a grabber right there,” Norris said.

He said he uses more than 100 creators each year but considers Gentry one of his regulars. Her puzzles get picked up about once a month.

For Gentry, creating a puzzle starts with her big red folder that contains lists of words and phrases. Next to each word or phrase, in parentheses, is a number indicating the letter total. Fifteen characters is the limit for most daily crosswords.

Here’s how it works:

Gentry finds a theme or quote to build the puzzle around. She did one, for example, around this quote from golfer John Daly: “I hit the ball as hard as I can. If I can find it, I hit it again.”

Another, still in progress, was going to be titled “Unease” or “E-lite circles.” The potential answers included “Batman and Robin” and “Roman Holiday.” Her goal: to make a puzzle that did not include the letter e.

For another, she played off the phrase “win, lose or draw.” Her three answers were “winning smile,” “losing one’s nerve” and “drawing board.”

She arranges those long answers on an empty crossword grid on her computer, then adds black squares.

As Gentry chooses words, the grid slowly fills in, and some words get literally trapped in a corner. The computer program looks ahead and lets Gentry know the ramifications of picking a particular word. Making “abyss” the answer to 1 Across might lead to an unusual word such as “etui” at 16 Down. So Gentry might back out and start over.

“Etui” is a word. It means a small decorative case. But it mainly exists in crosswords and Scrabble, and Gentry tries to avoid those.

“You want it to be more contemporary and pop culture,” Gentry said. “We would rather use more common lingo.”

She will toss in words like “iPhone,” “blog” or “carbon footprint.” Those are not in the dictionary or in her computer program, but are on people’s tongues.

After the grid is filled in, she starts writing the clues. It’s her least favorite part, and sometimes she’ll send a completed grid to a partner to “clue.”

She did the “win, lose or draw” puzzle herself. One clue was “charm school grad’s asset” (winning smile). Another was “place to go back to when starting over” (drawing board).

It is the themes, Gentry said, that give good crossword puzzles their quiet charm. It creates that smile aficionados get while completing them.

“It’s the endorphins I don’t get when I’m working out,” Gentry said.

Citizen Online Archive, 2006-2009

This archive contains all the stories that appeared on the Tucson Citizen's website from mid-2006 to June 1, 2009.

In 2010, a power surge fried a server that contained all of videos linked to dozens of stories in this archive. Also, a server that contained all of the databases for dozens of stories was accidentally erased, so all of those links are broken as well. However, all of the text and photos that accompanied some stories have been preserved.

For all of the stories that were archived by the Tucson Citizen newspaper's library in a digital archive between 1993 and 2009, go to Morgue Part 2

Search site | Terms of service