5 Questions with Author Elizabeth Singer Hunt!

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!

It’s all about exploring the vast and intriguing puzzle community by talking to those who make puzzles and those who enjoy them! (Click here to check out previous editions of 5 Questions!)

And I’m excited to welcome Elizabeth Singer Hunt as our latest 5 Questions interviewee!

Elizabeth Singer Hunt is the author behind the globe-spanning Jack Stalwart books, a young adult series featuring a nine-year-old secret agent, with over two million books sold to her credit! She’s recently expanded into the world of puzzles with the publication of the Secret Agent Training Manual, a terrific introductory guide to codecracking and concealment.

Anagrams, ciphers, scytales, and encoding with other letters, numbers, or symbols are all explained with easy-to-understand instructions and plenty of examples. She even provides sample encryptions to crack, letting readers practice their newfound skills and techniques, giving young readers the chance to become their own Jack Stalwart-style secret agents!

Elizabeth 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 Elizabeth Singer Hunt

1. What inspired the adventures of Jack Stalwart?

As a young girl, I struggled to read. It wasn’t so much that reading was a problem for me. I couldn’t find any books that I identified with. I grew up in a small town in Louisiana, and spent most of my weekends fishing, crabbing, playing with frogs and tossing around footballs. Basically, I was a tomboy. It was difficult to find books that I could relate to since most of the ‘girl’ books were about friendship issues, horses and fairies.

At around that same time, Raiders of the Lost Ark opened in theatres. That movie introduced me to archaeology and adventure, and showed me that there was a world outside of Louisiana. As a southern girl, I had no idea that places like ‘Nepal’ and ‘Peru’ even existed!

When I was in my late twenties, I decided to take a crack at writing a children’s book series. I drew upon my childhood experiences and inspirations to create the series’ main character, nine-year-old Jack Stalwart. Jack moonlights as a junior secret agent for the Global Protection Force, or GPF. In every book, he’s sent on a mission to an exotic locale in order to protect one of the world’s most precious treasures.

Millions of children around the world have fallen in love with Jack, largely because they identify with him and want to be like him. He’s like a pint-size Indiana Jones, sprinkled with a bit of James Bond and written for the nine-year-old ‘reluctant reader’ me.

Did they, in turn, inspire the Secret Agent Training Manual, or was that meant to be a standalone creation?

Over the years, I have received thousands of emails from children asking how they can become a secret agent like Jack. So I thought it would be fun to create a series that introduced them to basic secret agent/spy skills. Code-breaking seemed a natural place to start! The first book in the series is called How to Make and Break Top Secret Messages. Subsequent books will discuss basic spy craft and the history of intelligence gathering.

2. Are you a puzzle fan yourself, or did your aptitude with encryption and codebreaking puzzles come out of your research and work as a writer?

A little bit of both! I have always had an affinity and aptitude for word puzzles. My favorite game growing up was Boggle and to this day, I am the family Boggle Champion! Recently, my children and I discovered Bananagrams.

It’s right up my alley, since it relies on the ability to quickly arrange and re-arrange letter tiles into words. That being said, I didn’t know too much about the world of cryptography (except for some of the basics) until I began researching for this book.

Do you have a favorite method of encryption or one that didn’t make it into the SATM?

I am fascinated by all of the methods of encryption featured in the book because each has its use depending upon the situation. I suppose my favorite is the ‘cipher’ because it’s ever-changing and difficult for the average person to solve without a key.

3. Let’s talk a little bit about your writing process, since composing a novel is a puzzle in itself. Do you start with characters, plot, certain scenes in your head already? How do you approach the process of writing a book?

Good question! It depends upon the type of book that I am writing.

For my (fiction) Jack Stalwart chapter book series, I have a fairly unorthodox way of writing. I establish the setting, mission and villain and then I start writing! Everything is free-flowing, and little is planned. I love movies and am extremely influenced by film, so in a way I am writing as though I am watching a film play out before my eyes.

For the (non-fiction) Secret Agent Training Manual book, things needed to be a lot more structured. Research was done, notes were taken and the book was organized from the most basic cryptographic methods to those that took a bit more time and thought to decode. Most of this book was handwritten, while many of my fiction books are typed onto a computer screen from the get-go.

4. What’s next for Elizabeth Singer Hunt?

I’m excited to say that Costco is planning an exclusive nationwide launch of the Jack Stalwart series in volume form next month, i.e. in April of 2016. That means that children across the country will be able to enjoy the Jack Stalwart series four books at a time in a specially produced keepsake volume.

Besides this news and the launch of the Secret Agent Training Manual book, I’ve also recently published the first book in a new middle grade series called Swamp Mysteries: The Treasure of Jean Lafitte. The series chronicles the adventures of four twelve-year-old friends as they solve paranormal mysteries in the swamps and bayous of Louisiana. It’s a bit like Scooby-Doo with a southern twist.

5. If you could give the readers, writers, and puzzle fans in the audience one piece of advice, what would it be?

As my mother always says, “There’s always a solution to everything. Persevere!”

When I first had the idea for the Jack Stalwart series, I shopped it around to various agents and publishers and they promptly rejected it. I could have felt sorry for myself and given up. But I believed in the idea and in myself. So, I found a solution to the problem. I published it myself, i.e. hired an editor, illustrator, designer and found a local printer to produce the books. I printed thousands of Jack Stalwart books, and sold them personally to as many booksellers as I could find.

After five months of hard work, the series caught the attention of an agent and the head of children’s fiction at Random House UK. (I was living in England at the time). Random House acquired the Jack Stalwart series, and commissioned me to write a total of fourteen books.

The rest as they say is history. Had I listened to the naysayers, Jack Stalwart never would have existed and I never would have had a career as an author. Thankfully, I took my mother’s advice. It’s the same advice that I would give to anyone with a dream. Never give up. Be resourceful, and persevere.


A huge thank you to Elizabeth for her time. Be sure to visit her website for updates on her latest projects. I cannot wait to see what she has in store for us next!

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The Story Behind Bletchley Park

It’s amazing when you consider the impact one of the most common forms of puzzle solving, cryptography, has had on world history. From the Revolutionary War to World War II, codebreaking was a battlefront as crucial and as exhausting as any contested piece of land on the map.

This was brought into stark clarity recently when I read The Secret Lives of Codebreakers by Sinclair McKay, which chronicles the work and lives of the team members at Bletchley Park who dedicated themselves to cracking the German Enigma code. It’s been said that Bletchley Park’s achievements shortened the war by two or three years. That’s no small feat.

(You know the decryption work done at Bletchley Park was good if it inspired parts of two of Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels. The film The Imitation Game barely scratched the surface.)

From The Secret Lives of Codebreakers:

Here, in these grounds fifty miles to the north of London, they would be introduced to the gravest secret of the war. Every intercepted enemy message — every signal from every captain, commander, military division, battleship, U-boat — all these encrypted communications, jumbled up into seemingly random letters in groups of four and five, and transmitted by radio, were gathered by the many listening posts around the British coastline.

From the Battle of Britain to the Blitz, from Cape Matapan to El-Alamein, from Kursk to the V-1 flying bombs, to D-Day and Japan, the work of Bletchley Park was completely invisible, yet right at the heart of the conflict. It was a key player whose presence, at all times, had to be kept utterly hidden from the enemy.

Imagine working these incredibly intensive sessions, obsessively looking over bits of code for hours at a time, knowing that the fate of the world rested on your shoulders, and a simple transcription mistake could cost lives. It’s a mind-boggling concept.

And the book shed a great deal of light on the decryption work itself. For instance, I had no idea how many variations of the Enigma code they were expected to crack.

The German rule was that no message should be more than 250 letters in length; if it was necessary to send a longer message, it should be split into multiple parts. This was designed to make life more difficult for codebreakers: the longer the message, the easier it might be for such a person to see patterns of letters forming among the apparent chaos.

Thanks to preambles in each Enigma message, codebreakers could at least be organized under different color keys: yellow, green, red, and blue. When they ran out of colors, they named keys after marine life, then birds, then elephants, then insects.

This was a war, and organization was key, no pun intended.

The first big break is known as the Herivel Tip, when one of the Bletchley Park crew deduced that some Enigma machine operators might choose the new day’s settings based on the letters used the previous day. This became a valuable jumping-off point for daily decryption attempts with their own coding device, the bombe machine.

In 1941, the first major Enigma-style code, the Abwehr code, was broken by Bletchley Park. In June of 1941, they broke the Vulture key, which revealed German activity on the Eastern front.

But the Germans were constantly adapting and refining their codes. German paranoia led to submarines using a different code than surface naval vessels. So “Dolphin,” the surface naval code, was not the only code troubling Bletchley Park. “Shark,” the submarine key, was a new concern. Thankfully, when U-559 sank in 1942 and its crew abandoned ship, its Enigma machine and a book of current “Shark” keys was salvaged by Allied forces without German knowledge.

In 1943, they broke “Porcupine,” giving them access to all German air force messages for a few weeks.

Around this time, the German High Command began using another method to transmit encrypted messages, and this became yet another focus of Bletchley Park. The “Fish” or “Tunny” communications were between generals and the Fuhrer himself.

This led to the development of the big brother of the bombe machine, Colossus, which combined the logic engines of a Turing machine with electronic valves that allowed it to read 5000 characters a second, five times faster than the previous top machine.

(While this was going on, Turing himself was developing a new speech encipherment system, Delilah, so named because she was a deceiver of men.)

In January 1945, efforts were still going strong, as Bletchley Park not only cracked the “Puffin” and “Falcon” keys of the German army, but effectively countered attempts by the Luftwaffe to implement new encryptions. By this point, dozens of variations of Enigma had been unraveled by the team.

Of course, decryption wasn’t the only thing accomplished at Bletchley Park.

The grand deception that led to the Normandy invasion was also managed there. They gradually fed false data to German Intelligence about military groups like the First United States Army Group preparing to enter France via the Pas de Calais and the Twelfth British Army into Scandinavia and Turkey. This allowed for D-Day to proceed, as German attention was diverted.

But The Secret Lives of Codebreakers goes beyond their wartime victories. McKay takes us behind the scenes of Bletchley Park to share not only the hard-won achievements of the cryptographers there, but also what daily life was like on the isolated estate. From living conditions and several romances to rivalries and petty feuds caused by high tensions, the book catalogues the realities of such stressful work in richly detailed fashion.

I think my favorite discoveries were related to the off-time of the recruits:

Oliver and Sheila Lawn have especially fond memories of the way that Bletchley-ites contrived to use their leisure time: “There was music,” says Mr. Lawn, “Play readings. And play actings. Quite a bit of amateur dramatics. And concerts of all kinds.”

Highland dancing, madrigals, creating palindromes…they were offered all sorts of activities to help keep spirits up after grueling decryption sessions. Certain musical artists were even invited up to perform there!

When you consider how important their work was and how many years they were sworn to silence about Bletchley Park, these revelations become all the more stunning. This isn’t just a fascinating work of puzzle history, this is history itself.


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A hundred pennies for my thoughts…

Today’s blog post marks my one-hundredth post for the PuzzleNation blog. With the one-hundredth anniversary of the Crossword a few months away, I’m proud to add my own little PuzzleNation milestone to the long, proud history of puzzles.

One hundred posts. Boy, posting twice a week adds up fast, doesn’t it? Appropriate, since a jiffy is 1/100th of a second. (Sorry, I’ve got number trivia on the brain.)

If this blog was a TV show, this post would’ve marked it for syndication. (A syndication deal would allow a channel to run one rerun of the show every weekday for 20 weeks.)

The 100th episode is always a big one for a show, and since they nearly always happen in the fifth season of a show, they’ve had time to plan something special. Weddings, showdowns, big doin’s. How I Met Your Mother staged a big musical moment, The Office had the Dunder-Mifflin picnic (and Pam’s pregnancy announcement), and Buffy the Vampire Slayer had Buffy dying (again).

But my one-hundredth post isn’t the only milestone to celebrate. We’re closing in on the blog’s two-hundredth post overall in a few weeks!

While we’ve still got a ways to go before we’re in the same arena as Gunsmoke or The Simpsons (635 and 531 episodes, respectively), 200 is nothing to sneeze at. That’s the average number of seeds in a strawberry, and the average number of lights on a Christmas tree. (Sorry, more number trivia. I can’t help myself.)

I don’t have anything nearly as grandiose as the examples above planned. Instead, I’d like to go the Seinfeld route and look back on some of my favorite posts. Like the 100 tiles in a standard Scrabble set, I’ve chosen carefully. =)

Of course, I have to start with the 5 Questions posts, which have quickly become favorites of mine (especially after getting to chat with Wink Martindale!). Having the opportunity to talk to puzzlers, event organizers, authors, and celebrities about what puzzles mean to them is an incredibly cool experience, and I hope the readers enjoy them as much as I do. (Click here and scroll down to see every installment so far.)

And speaking of puzzles (as I often do), I have to include a pair of clue-centric posts featuring terrifically clever and funny clues (some of which were deemed too tongue-in-cheek for solvers).

This one goes back to last year, but it still makes me laugh. It’s my puzzle resume, detailing all the puzzly experiences that led me to PuzzleNation.

In the same spirit, we have this post about how solving puzzles is actually excellent training for the aspiring James Bond-style spies among us.

And no list of favorite posts would be complete without this lovely bit of puzzle romance.

Last, and certainly not least, I present an introduction to the Diggin’ Words dogs, our friendly anagram-loving pooches.

Thank you, puzzlers, for your enthusiasm and support over these last 100 posts. I’m looking forward to celebrating many similar milestones with you in the future.

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