5 Questions for Crossword Constructing Duo May Huang and Kevin Trickey!

Welcome to 5 Questions, our recurring interview series where we reach out to puzzle constructors, game designers, writers, filmmakers, musicians, artists, and puzzle enthusiasts from all walks of life!

This feature is all about exploring the vast and intriguing puzzle community by talking to those who make puzzles and those who enjoy them.

And this marks the fourth edition of a new series of interviews where we turn our eyes to the future of crosswords. Instead of interviewing established talents in the field, I’ve been reaching out to new and up-and-coming constructors and asking them to share their experiences as a nascent cruciverbalist.

And we’re excited to welcome May Huang and Kevin Trickey as our latest 5 Questions interviewees (and our first duo interview)!

Kevin and May - crossword background

For many modern constructors, making crosswords isn’t simply about building grids or writing clues. It’s also about contributing to the greater crossword community in a meaningful way.

And you’d be hard-pressed to find two people making bigger strides in that direction than constructor May Huang and programmer Kevin Trickey. They have launched their own free puzzle site, Crossworthy, to share a new puzzle every week, and May’s puzzles have found their way into outlets like The Inkubator.

But they’ve gone above and beyond by creating a free-to-use crossword construction tool, Crossworthy Construct. With the price of quality crossword-constructing software often proving a major hindrance to new puzzlers, Crossworthy Construct is an amazing resource for any aspiring cruciverbalist to try out.

May and Kevin were gracious enough to take some time out to talk to us, so without further ado, let’s get to the interview!


5 Questions for May Huang and Kevin Trickey

1. How did you get started with puzzles?

In the early months of quarantine, May started playing the NYT minis and eventually began making her own minis that she would send out to friends and family throughout the month (her newsletter was called “May’s Minis”). As Kevin watched May iterate through fills on Microsoft Word, he started writing an algorithm that could churn out larger grids more quickly. In June, we started Crossworthy, a website for publishing our algorithm-generated and hand-made grids.

Unlike some constructors we know, we didn’t start out as avid crossword players before starting to make our own puzzles. But the creative and technical challenges of crossword construction align with our mutual interests — May is a literary translator who enjoys wordplay, while Kevin is a casual programmer who fancied a challenge. Now, of course, we love both playing crosswords as well!

2. You have your own puzzle website (and editing software!), in addition to publishing through outlets like The Inkubator. As you start to interact with the puzzle community at large, what have you learned along the way? What has been the most surprising part of the process for you?

When we first started making puzzles, we didn’t expect this hobby to really take off, but it really has! We went from constructing puzzles using Microsoft Word (a good learning experience, but not sustainable) to developing our own software that streamlines our construction process.

Along the way, however, we were surprised to see how many resources already exist — tools and communities we wish we had known about sooner! We sometimes tweet about our construction questions and we’re always heartened by how instantly helpful fellow constructors can be. The best thing we’ve learned is that the crossword community can be a very kind and welcoming place.

Crossworthy Construct page

[Crossworthy Construct, May and Kevin’s crossword custom editing
software. Click here to check it out for yourself.]

What, in your estimation, makes for a great puzzle? What do you most enjoy — or try hardest to avoid — when constructing your own?

A great puzzle, to us, is both personal and accessible; it should have words and clues that really resonate with the constructor, as well as elements that will speak to any player. Because we have different interests, however, we often clash over clues.

For example, most of May’s pop culture clues fly over Kevin’s head, whereas the biology terms Kevin tends to include are equally obscure to her. In this way, we keep each other in check, and try to produce well-balanced puzzles. Nonetheless, we’re still rookies in the field: we’re still learning about what makes a theme set stand out and which words make for sparkly fill.

3. Do you have any favorite crossword themes or clues, either your own or those crafted by others? Who inspires you as a constructor?

Recent puzzles we’ve really enjoyed include Paolo Pasco’s “Busting Moves” puzzle (January 3rd, 2021) as well as Matthew Stock’s “Karaoke Bars” (February 21, 2021). Malaika Handa’s daily 7×7 project is fantastic, and Evan Birnholz’s meta puzzle “5×5” in the Washington Post was super eye-opening. We’re inspired by too many constructors to name — Barbara Lin, Caitlin Reid, Natan Last, Ross Trudeau, Kam Austin Collins…the list goes on!

We tend to like puzzles with themes that make us smile, and reveal an aspect of the constructor’s personality. Some of our own puzzles that fall into our category include “Valentine Poem,” whose theme words spell out a crossword-themed love poem, and “A President’s Ponderings,” a puzzle that includes presidential puns in its theme set.

crossworthy valentine

4. What’s next for May Huang and Kevin Trickey?

While we plan to continue publishing weekly puzzles on Crossworthy every Sunday, we also hope to start publishing more puzzles in other venues (May has a puzzle coming out from the Inkubator soon!).

We’re also spending a lot of time building out new features for Crossworthy Construct, our own free construction software. Our goal is to reduce the barriers to entry for new and aspiring constructors like us. Currently, anyone can use our site to construct their own puzzles, and we’d love to hear from as many people as possible about their ideal construction software.

5. What’s one piece of advice you would offer fellow solvers, aspiring constructors/setters, and puzzle enthusiasts?

Kevin’s advice: Find an angle that interests you the most. Like everything else in life, crossword constructing is the convergence of many disciplines, and you can choose to play to your strengths. For me, it was the technical challenge of coding that got me started, and it’s kept me invested a year later.

May’s advice: Don’t be discouraged if you have trouble solving the NYT puzzle; in fact, look beyond the NYT! There are so many more crossword publication venues and indie sites out there making great puzzles. There are many diverse voices in the crossworld and you can definitely be one of them.


A huge thank you to May and Kevin for their time. You can follow them on Twitter for all of their crossword endeavors, and be sure to check out their website Crossworthy to solve puzzles and try out their crossword constructing software! I cannot wait to see what they cook up next!

Thanks for visiting PuzzleNation Blog today! Be sure to sign up for our newsletter to stay up-to-date on everything PuzzleNation!

You can also share your pictures with us on Instagram, friend us on Facebook, check us out on TwitterPinterest, and Tumblr, and explore the always-expanding library of PuzzleNation apps and games on our website!

5 Questions for Crossword Constructor Mollie Cowger!

Welcome to 5 Questions, our recurring interview series where we reach out to puzzle constructors, game designers, writers, filmmakers, musicians, artists, and puzzle enthusiasts from all walks of life!

This feature is all about exploring the vast and intriguing puzzle community by talking to those who make puzzles and those who enjoy them.

And this marks the third edition of a new series of interviews where we turn our eyes to the future of crosswords. Instead of interviewing established talents in the field, I’ve been reaching out to new and up-and-coming constructors and asking them to share their experiences as a nascent cruciverbalist.

And we’re excited to welcome Mollie Cowger as our latest 5 Questions interviewee!

Less than a year into her crossword career, Mollie Cowger has already built a reputation for creative themes, strong cluing, and well-constructed grids. Heck, she made my list of favorite clues of the year with “Protector of the crown?” for ENAMEL.

Her puzzles have appeared in Matt Gaffney’s Weekly Crossword Contest, Matthew Stock’s Happy Little Puzzles, and several times in the USA Today crossword, and that list will be growing by leaps and bounds in the near future.

Mollie was gracious enough to take some time out to talk to us, so without further ado, let’s get to the interview!


5 Questions for Mollie Cowger

1. How did you get started with puzzles?

My mom has always been an avid crossword solver, so I got started young. I’ve solved crosswords (originally just NYT, now many others) with varying degrees of regularity since at least high school (so, 2010-ish). I’ve been messing around with construction for a few years, but didn’t start devoting serious time and energy to it until summer 2020. My published debut was in October 2020 with a meta crossword for Matt Gaffney’s Weekly Crossword Contest.

2. What, in your estimation, makes for a great puzzle? What do you most enjoy — or try hardest to avoid — when constructing your own?

I love a good a-ha moment; I love a puzzle that makes me laugh; I love seeing pop culture that’s in my wheelhouse; I love learning new things. There are so many ways a puzzle can be great! I also think “greatness” is a subjective judgment. I’ve solved many puzzles that are technically impressive and thoughtfully constructed that just don’t vibe with me for whatever reason. But that’s fine! Not everyone has to like every puzzle.

When I’m making a puzzle, I love having an entry where I know there’s great wordplay to be found, and then having my own constructor aha moment when I finally land on it. I try to put things in my puzzles that I would be excited to see as a solver, or that I can imagine someone else being excited to see.

I try to use “do I think people who know this will be happy to see it” as a guiding question for proper noun-ish fill and cluing, rather than “do I think everyone will know this.” As many others have pointed out more eloquently than I can, trying to guess what “everyone” will know tends to reinforce existing inequalities.

3. Do you have any favorite crossword themes or clues, either your own or those crafted by others? Who inspires you as a constructor?

I don’t keep track of favorite clues, but I do keep a folder of favorite puzzles. Some recent-ish additions to that folder include Rachel Fabi’s June 1st, 2020 USA Today puzzle (“6/1”), Erik Agard’s February 1st & 2nd 2021 Universal puzzles, and Paolo Pasco’s blog puzzle “Entry-Level Stuff”. I don’t want to spoil them, so I won’t explain why they’re great. Go solve them!

There are so many constructors I admire and am inspired by that it feels foolish to try to name them all. It’s phenomenal how many people are making puzzles these days, and it seems like the community is only continuing to grow, which is wonderful.

[Her tag team solving is next-level.]

4. What’s next for Mollie Cowger?

Puzzling, gardening, maybe finishing knitting a half-done scarf that’s been taunting me for years (that one’s pretty aspirational), getting that sweet sweet COVID vaccine needle into my arm as soon as I’m eligible. In the longer term? Who knows!

5. What’s one piece of advice you would offer fellow solvers, aspiring constructors/setters, and puzzle enthusiasts?

If you’re thinking of diving into constructing, you should absolutely do it– the community is filled with kind people who will help you along. And, more broadly, don’t forget to have fun.


A huge thank you to Mollie for her time. You can follow her on Twitter for all of her crossword endeavors, and be sure to check out her puzzle blog Crosswords From Outer Space for new puzzles every other Monday! Whatever she creates next, I’m sure it will be terrific.

Thanks for visiting PuzzleNation Blog today! Be sure to sign up for our newsletter to stay up-to-date on everything PuzzleNation!

You can also share your pictures with us on Instagram, friend us on Facebook, check us out on TwitterPinterest, and Tumblr, and explore the always-expanding library of PuzzleNation apps and games on our website!

5 Questions for Crossword Constructor Erica Wojcik!

Welcome to 5 Questions, our recurring interview series where we reach out to puzzle constructors, game designers, writers, filmmakers, musicians, artists, and puzzle enthusiasts from all walks of life!

This feature is all about exploring the vast and intriguing puzzle community by talking to those who make puzzles and those who enjoy them.

And this marks the second edition of a new series of interviews where we turn our eyes to the future of crosswords. Instead of interviewing established talents in the field, I’ve been reaching out to new and up-and-coming constructors and asking them to share their experiences as a nascent cruciverbalist.

And we’re excited to welcome Erica Wojcik as our latest 5 Questions interviewee!

Erica has only started constructing crosswords over the last year, but she’s already making waves. Most notably, she has spearheaded the Expanded Crossword Name Database, a resource for constructors where the crossword community at large can submit the names of women, non-binary individuals, trans individuals, or people of color that you’d like to see in crosswords.

She currently has a puzzle up on Matthew Stock’s Happy Little Puzzles, and we’ll start seeing her creations in outlets like The Inkubator in the coming months. I have no doubt her byline will be appearing elsewhere soon!

Erica was gracious enough to take some time out to talk to us, so without further ado, let’s get to the interview!


5 Questions for Erica Wojcik

1. How did you get started with puzzles?

I used to do morning crosswords with friends in college, but only sporadically. In 2015, my husband got me hooked on the NYT crossword and ever since, our daily routine involves solving the Times puzzle together and reading Rex Parker’s blog. I study language development as a professor of psychology, and crosswords perfectly combine my interests in language and problem solving.

I’d been curious about constructing for a while, but finally decided to try it out in February 2020. I tweeted something about wanting to construct and tagged Anna Shechtman and Erik Agard on a whim, and they both gave super advice and other constructors chimed in as well. I was so shocked and delighted by how nice and helpful everyone was!

But, it was February 2020 and before I could actually dive in, the pandemic struck and I was stuck juggling a job, a toddler, and a newborn. I got my head above water in November, downloaded Across Lite, read Patrick Berry’s Handbook, got hooked up with a mentor via the Crossword Puzzle Collaboration Directory and very quickly became obsessed.

2. You have a puzzle in the pipeline with The Inkubator and you’re awaiting feedback on submissions to several of the major outlets. As you start to interact with the puzzle community at large, what have you learned along the way? What has been the most surprising part of the process for you?

Oh man, I’ve learned so, so many things from so, so many people! The most surprising part of constructing has been discovering the fun, welcoming online crossword community. I had no idea! It’s been such a delight to chat and joke and learn from so many folks. The most important (and most cliche) thing I’ve learned is to ask for help when you have a question. So many folks are willing to collaborate or share tips.

What, in your estimation, makes for a great puzzle? What do you most enjoy — or try hardest to avoid — when constructing your own?

I love puzzles that have personality and teach me something new, which usually means crosswords that have colloquial/contemporary phrases and avoid common crosswordese. Of course, I’ve learned that this is SO HARD to do. I end up ripping up entire grids because I have AMTOO and OSHA gnawing at me. But it’s worth it when you fill a grid that is just so clean and fresh throughout.

3. Do you have any favorite crossword themes or clues, either your own or those crafted by others? Who inspires you as a constructor?

There are WAY too many constructors that I admire to list here! But in recent memory…. I absolutely loved Nam Jin Yoon’s Saturday NYT puzzle at the end of January. So many good phrases. Such clever cluing on the shorter fill. I’m also a huge fan of Malaika Handa’s 7×7 blog. Those make me laugh out loud all the time.

4. What’s next for Erica Wojcik?

I’ve gotten so much positive feedback for the Expanded Crossword Name Database, and one thing that several people have asked about is whether I can create a similar database for cultural things (teams, places, organizations etc.) So I’ll be getting that up soon!

I’m such a n00b at constructing, so I’m still just constantly playing around with themes and grids and trying to really find my voice. I love love love collaborating so I hope to do more of that, too!

5. What’s one piece of advice you would offer fellow solvers, aspiring constructors/setters, and puzzle enthusiasts?

Read Patrick Berry’s Handbook and join Crossword Twitter 🙂


A huge thank you to Erica for her time. You can follow her on Twitter for all of her crossword endeavors, and be sure to contribute your ideas to the Expanded Crossword Name Database! I’m genuinely looking forward to seeing what she creates next.

Thanks for visiting PuzzleNation Blog today! Be sure to sign up for our newsletter to stay up-to-date on everything PuzzleNation!

You can also share your pictures with us on Instagram, friend us on Facebook, check us out on TwitterPinterest, and Tumblr, and explore the always-expanding library of PuzzleNation apps and games on our website!

Sometimes, You Can’t Trust the “Rules” of Crosswords

There are a lot of things you learn as you solve more and more crosswords.

You learn vocabulary, both words that are simply new to you AND words that are common to crosswords. You learn cluing tropes, like question marks indicating wordplay or quotation marks indicating informal speech or exclamations.

You also start to learn some of the constructors’ tricks.

Now, there are all sorts of ways that constructors can play with solvers, but all told, they seem to fit into three overall categories: clue trickery, theme gimmickry, and grid manipulation.

We’ve spoken about clue trickery loads of times in the past, and no doubt will again. And theme gimmickry will be the subject of a future post.

But today, we’d like to focus on grid manipulation.

tumblr_nltrvaQWZN1qafoq6o1_400

So, what do we mean by that? Well, essentially, grid manipulation is our catchall term for the most devious arrow in the constructor’s quiver. It’s when the standard accepted rules of crosswords no longer apply.

No matter what sort of symmetry is involved or how the grid is constructed, there are generally three accepted rules of crosswords:

  • Across words read across.
  • Down words read down.
  • One letter per square.

These are the fundamental rules, Newton’s three laws of crosswords. They’re the rules every solver expects to be in play when they sit down to solve a crosswords.

But that’s not always true.

gopher

Over the years, crafty constructors have found ways to push the boundaries of what you can do with those iconic grids of black and white squares.

Some constructors have literally gone outside the box, creating puzzles where letters of answers are placed beyond the grid itself, as in Sid Sivakumar’s American Values Club crossword “Bursting With Pride” a year or two ago (with the letters LGBTQIA+ appearing in sequence).

Byron Walden’s Fasten Your Seatbelts puzzle from the AVC crossword in 2019 also extended beyond the grid. Extra letters served not only as “bumps” along the otherwise smooth sides of the grid, but spelled out various bumps, like RAZOR, SPEED, and GOOSE.

Other constructors find fresh ways to pack more into a grid than expected.

The most common form is the rebus puzzle, whether multiple letters can be placed in a single grid square. Sometimes, it’s only a single square in a themed entry where multiple letters fit. Other times, you can get whole strings of them. The exact puzzle escapes me, but I can remember a crossword where two down entries all had rebus squares, so instead of one film title in that down entry, two would fit in each.

One impressive example that comes to mind is Andy Kravis’s “Currency Exchange” puzzle from the 2019 Indie 500 puzzle tournament.

The puzzle actually had little ATM graphics in various grid boxes, and they represented different currencies concealed in the theme entries. Plus, the across and down entries that shared an ATM had different currencies in their entries. For instance, one ATM represented WON in SMALL WONDER and DINAR in ORDINARY.

Other puzzles, known as quantum puzzles, feature multiple possible answers in the same space.

1996 election puzzle gif

The most famous example is the 1996 Election Day crossword. The puzzle “predicted” the outcome of the election quite cleverly by allowing for either CLINTON ELECTED or BOB DOLE ELECTED to read out, depending on how the solver answered seven down clues.

Arguably the most impressive one I’ve ever seen was published in 2014. Constructors Kacey Walker and David Quarfoot combined some considerable Scrabble skills and a dynamite crossword grid to create an amazing puzzle.

You see, clues 26-Across, 36-Across, and 44-Across all featured seven letters, like a rack in Scrabble. It was up to the solver to find the anagram of each rack that fit the grid. Walker and Quarfoot designed the puzzle so that each of those clues had three possible correct answers — for 26-Across: ROWDIER, WORDIER, and WORRIED all fit the down clues — meaning there were a staggering 27 possible correct solutions!

Still, those puzzles followed the standard across and down rules. But other puzzles don’t.

In those puzzles, entries don’t go the way you’d think, bending or taking unexpected twists in the grid. One example was Patrick Berry’s brain-melting Puzzle 5 from the 2016 American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, “Changing Lanes,” where answers zigzagged across the grid.

A less complex puzzle with a similar gimmick appeared in the 2019 Boswords tournament. “Spill the Tea” by John Lieb and David Quarfoot featured longer entries than would fit in the given spaces. The trick was to shorten in by removing a brand of tea from the answer, and letting it read down off that across entry, rather than inside it. So, for instance, HOTEL CHAIN read HOTELCN across, because CHAI was reading down from the C instead.

thatsnoneofmy

Lieb and Quarfoot incorporated five such “spills” in the grid, and clued each tea reading down simply with “Oops.” It was an immensely clever way to utilize the across and down entries in a unique, unexpected way.

As you can see, puzzle innovation can come in virtually any form, and often, the very foundational rules of crosswords can be bent or broken to create an ambitious, brain-twisting, and (ultimately) satisfying solve.

So be on the lookout, fellow puzzlers. You truly never know how constructors will challenge you next.


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The Great Crossword Debate: Overused Vs. Obscure

exercise-brain-crossword-670x335

Making a great crossword puzzle is not easy. Heck, making a GOOD crossword puzzle is not easy.

You want the theme to be creative, innovative even, but still something that can be intuited from a clever title and crafty clues.

You want the clues to be engaging, challenging, funny, tricky, and loaded with wordplay and personality.

And you want the grid fill to be fresh and interesting, yet accessible. You want to avoid obscurities, abbreviations, nonsensical partial-phrases, and the dreaded Naticks where two difficult entries cross.

But you also want to add to the lexicon of grid fill, leaving behind the tired vowel-heavy words that have become cliche or crosswordese.

Even if you accomplish all that, you also want your puzzle to have an overall consistent level of difficulty. Having a bunch of easy words in the grid only highlights the hard words necessitated when you construct yourself into a corner. A sudden spike in vocabulary and eccentricity is always noticeable.

So completing every grid becomes a balancing act between new and old, pop culture-loaded and traditional, obscure and overused.

This raises the question posed in a Reddit thread recently:

Which bothers you more, words that you probably wouldn’t know without a dictionary OR filling out OLEO and ARIA for the millionth time?

Both options had their proponents, so I’d like to give you my thoughts on each side of this cruciverbalist coin.


obscure_language

Obscure Over Overused

A well-constructed grid can overcome the occasional obscure entry. After all, since you have Across and Down entries, several accessible Across answers can hand you a difficult Down answer that you didn’t know.

You can assist with an informative clue. It might get a little lengthy, but like a well-written trivia question, you can often provide enough context to get somebody in the ballpark, even if they don’t know the exact word or phrase they need. If it FEELS fair, I think solvers will forgive some peculiar entries, as long as you don’t go overboard.

Also, if you’re a crossword fan, you’re probably a word nerd, and who doesn’t like learning new words?

As one contributor to the thread said, “I’d rather eke out a solution than fill in EKE OUT or EKE BY again.”


News-Keep-Calm-and-Carry-This-Overused-Phrase-to-the-Grave-for-College-Students

Overused Over Obscure

The very nature of crosswords demands letter arrangements that are conducive to building tight grids. Your vowel-heavy entries, your alternating consonant-vowel ABAB patterns, the occasional all-consonants abbreviation or all-vowels exhalation or size measurement… these are necessary evils.

But that doesn’t mean the cluing has to be boring. I absolutely love it when a constructor finds a new twist on an entry you’ve seen a billion times. I laughed out loud when Patti Varol clued EWE as “Baa nana?” because it was a take I’d never seen before.

Here are a few more examples of really smart ways I’ve seen overused entries clued:

  • “It’s never been the capital of England (and it surely won’t be now)” for EURO (Steve Faiella)
  • “Name-dropper’s abbr.” for ETAL (Patrick Berry)
  • “It’s three before November” for KILO (Andy Kravis)
  • “Fix plot holes, maybe” for HOE (Peter Gordon)
  • “50/50, e.g.” for ONE (Michael Shteyman). This one really plays with your expectations.
  • “Hawaiian beach ball?” for LUAU (George Barany)

Still, this is no excuse for going incredibly obtuse with your cluing just to be different. Making an esoteric reference just to avoid saying “Sandwich cookie” for OREO might be more annoying to a solver than just the overused answer itself.

On the flip side, you can treat them as gimmes, cluing them with familiar phrasing and letting them serve as the jumping-off points for longer, more difficult entries or the themed entries the puzzle is constructed around. Some familiar words are always welcome, particularly if a solver is feeling daunted with a particular puzzle’s or day’s standard difficulty.

(One poster even suggested pre-populating the grid with common crosswordese like OLEO, kinda like the set numbers in a Sudoku. I don’t think I’ve ever seen that approach before.)


conman1112

So, have we come to any conclusions today? Probably not.

As I said before, it’s a tightrope every constructor must walk on the way to finishing a crossword. Every constructor has a different method for getting across, a different formula for success. Some even manage to make it look effortless.

What do you think, fellow puzzlers and PuzzleNationers? Do you favor overused entries or obscure ones? Let us know in the comments section below. We’d love to hear from you!


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Crosswordese in a Random Picture

It’s always fun when you encounter crosswordese in the wild. By definition, crosswordese involves words you only see in crosswords, so a real-world encounter is a rare and curious thing.

Someone posted the following picture on Reddit, in a post titled “How NYT constructors dress, presumably.”

(It differs wildly depending on the constructor, by the way.)

At first glance, there doesn’t seem to be much to it. But there are several classic crossword entries in this picture.

The A-LINE dress, the YSL on the purse, the ECRU shade. Quite the OLIO of puzzly elements.

Sure, the dress isn’t MIDI — though the coat might be! — but hey, beggars can’t be choosers.

Naturally, the commenters on that page suggested other crossword entries that might be out of sight, joking there’s an ETUI in her purse, an OBI missing from her coat, an EPEE in her concealed right hand, or ESTEE perfume in the air.

I for one suspect she’s close to her destination, her ETA just a SEC or two away.

Is she in EUR. somewhere? Perhaps near the RHINE or the RHONE or the AARE? Is she in OSLO?

Can you find any other examples of crosswordese lurking in this photo, fellow puzzlers and PuzzleNationers? Or maybe you have another picture packed with puzzly potential? Let us know in the comments section below! We’d love to hear from you.


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