What do toaster’s hold? No, it’s not toast.
A person making a toast holds bubbly.
Those are the sort of mental gymnastics crossword constructors like Peter Collins employ while creating grids for the New York Times.
He explained how crossword clues lead the solver’s minds in one direction, while the answer can be found in the opposite side.
“What turns into another story? A spiral staircase,” Collins said.
Collins, 59, of Ann Arbor, Michigan, and Bruce Haight, 63, of the San Diego, California area, have a quite a bit in common. Both have ties to Beloit, are skilled at math and see their crossword puzzles published in The New York Times and other major news outlets.
Collins and Haight first crossed paths in childhood when their families would vacation together at cabins in Lake Mills, Wisconsin. Peter is the son of Larry Collins, 91, formerly of Beloit and the nephew of Annie Collins, who lives on Colley Road. Haight is the son of James and Joyce Haight, who still reside in Beloit.
Today the two share their love of crosswords and still have fun together. They both attend the yearly American Crossword Puzzle Tournament in Stamford, Connecticut, where Haight is a judge.
“It’s like word nerds rule. Guys blow into town and have all sorts of weird games. There are people who can solve my crosswords in half the time I solve my own and I know half the answers,” Haight said.
Although they are respected crossword constructionists, they explained how their talent didn’t emerge until later in life.
Collins, a math teacher and father of four, started writing crosswords 11 years ago, getting his first one published in 2006.
“I was a casual solver and then thought I should try to write one. I threw myself into it. My first offerings were pretty horrible,” Collins said.
Today, Collins has published almost 100 of them in the New York Times with one scheduled to come out on Jan. 11. His puzzles have also debuted in USA Today, Wall Street Journal and the former New York Sun.
Although neither Collins nor Haight were ever into English and wordsmithing, Collins said a disproportionate amount of crossword constructionists are involved in math and music, having something to do with how they process information in space. They also tend to look at the individual letters to the downright oddities in words.
“You have to be thinking about things about the English language which strike you as strange, unusual or clever, and see where it takes you. Before you know it, a puzzle is born,” Collins said.
Filling the spaces in a crossword can be very challenging. Most grids must have rotational symmetry, meaning if the grid is rotated 180 degrees, the pattern of black and white squares must look identical. The technique is used for aesthetics.
Not only must the grid have symmetry, but the themed entries must also be symmetrical. If there is a 10-letter themed answer in row 3 from in the left top corner, for example, another 10-letter entry must be in row 3 in the bottom right corner.
Not only is the constructionist confined by symmetry, but often must devise a theme. Collins, for example, often has themes to his puzzles such as Mother’s Day or Musical Interpretation.
In addition to themes and thinking of words in new ways, Collins said he likes to mix up letters. For example, when he came up with the theme of “The New World Order” he rearranged the letters from the word WORLD and hid them inside other phrases such as “blow dryer” or “walking dog.”
Collins explained how crosswords typically get more difficult as the week goes on, calling Monday’s puzzle “the gateway drug.”
The New York Times pays $300 for a daily puzzle and $1,000 for the large Sunday puzzle. However, the publication receives about 100 submissions a week.
“Your chances of getting published are about 10 percent,” Collins said.
After Collins had been creating grids for five to six years, Haight said he became more interested in them.
As of Friday, Haight had published 20 puzzles in The New York Times, 22 in the Los Angeles Times and a few in the Orange County Register.
“It’s shocking I have a talent for crosswords and didn’t find out until I was 60,” Haight said.
Haight had previously only tried solving a few puzzles a year while on airplane flights. He preferred golf, or at least Sodoku.
After Haight began using an app for his iPad featuring old puzzles from The New York Times, he started dreaming up his own clues and in 2012 Collins helped him construct his first crossword.
Haight’s first 38 were rejected. Haight said he considered it a personal affront he couldn’t get one into newsprint, after a successful career as an eye doctor and winning golf tournaments. He didn’t back down and created crossword number 39 which was finally put in print.
Although Haight’s puzzles are now getting published, he explained they don’t necessarily feature all the clues he wrote.
“Editors change about half the clues on the average. If you are pretty experienced, they might only change a quarter of them,” Haight added.
Editors can tire of words like “aloe” and “era” as fill words require more interesting words with more rare letters.
Like Collins, Haight likes to move letters around and look at words in a different way for unique cluing. Sometimes they dream up their crosswords while falling asleep or even driving.
“You can be driving down the road and you’ll see a sign like Dunkin Donuts. Well if you took the D of the dunkin, it becomes ‘unkind donuts,’” he said.
Someone like Haight can look at the word fundamentalist, split it apart and make it “fund a mentalist.”
While Collins is more about the themes, Haight likes to use the black squares to make grid art. After Haight used black squares to sculpt a Scottish Terrier, he came up with clues.
“A boxer could be dog, fighter or type of underwear,” Haight said. “A poodle could be a skirt or haircut” he said.
He’s also embedded a fish and birds in his grids. The ophthalmologist said he made one with a capital E.
“It was kind of like an eye chart,” he said.
Accustomed to repetitious procedures in his career as an ophthalmologist, Haight found he loved using his creativity and imagination in the grids. He became so consumed with crossword creation during the early days of his newfound hobby, his health started to take a turn.
“I got all these ideas and couldn’t get to sleep at night. I lost 10 pounds and my wife was worried,” Haight said.
Haight’s wife, a neuro oncologist, arranged an MRI scan for him which showed a small cancerous tumor in his kidney. Because it was found in such an early stage, it was successfully removed. It’s possible, Haight said, the crossword obsession helped to spare his life.
For his customers, however, the crosswords are just fun. He started photocopying them and handing them out to patients. They’ve become so popular his customers often show up before it’s time for an appointment.