Meet the Daily POP Crosswords Constructors: Robin Stears

One of the Daily POP Crosswords app’s best features is the level of involvement from topnotch constructors. We’ve assembled one heck of a team when it comes to creating terrific, exciting, fresh themed crosswords.

And over the next few weeks, we’ll be introducing you to some of them. Some names you may know, some you may not, but they’re all doing amazing work on these puzzles and deserve a little time in the limelight.

In this installment, allow us to introduce you to constructor Robin Stears!

How did you get started in crosswords?

I’ve been constructing crossword puzzles for about 25 years, since my first daughter was born and I had to figure out a way to work from home. I’ve always enjoyed solving puzzles, ever since I was a child. Constructing puzzles is even more fun.

My puzzles have been in many Penny Press and Dell magazines – they’re my favorites – and also in The LA Times, Games Magazine, and of course, the Daily POP Crosswords app. The restrictions, like not being able to use any crosswordese or even slightly difficult words, adds a bit of a challenge, which of course makes it even more fun!

Personally, I prefer easier-to-medium puzzles rather than very difficult ones. I think puzzle solvers should have a good time and maybe learn something new. There’s nothing more frustrating than not being able to finish a crossword – and there’s nothing more satisfying than filling in that final square with the very last answer.

I want everyone who solves one of my puzzles to be able to finish it and enjoy that feeling of a job well done. And, at least once while they’re solving, I’d like them to look up and say, “Wow. That’s cool. I never knew that.”

What do you enjoy about working on Daily POP Crosswords?

The best thing about Daily POP Crosswords is what a joy they are to create. I’m a pop culture fan from way back in the day when I used to read comic books and go to Star Trek conventions, and I still love watching movies and TV shows, listening to music, reading books, and checking out the latest fashions. I still go to two or three pop culture conventions every year.

Recently, I decided to go back to college to finish the degree I started thirty-some years ago, and I find that hanging out with young people helps keep my pop culture knowledge up-to-date. Between classes, we hang out and spill the tea, and mentally I’m taking notes for future crossword puzzles.

Is there a particular theme day that appeals to you most or that you enjoy working on?

I don’t have a particular theme day that I love above all others – I love all kinds of pop culture. I have so much fun deciding who or what is “worthy” of a crossword tribute, and then researching why they’re famous. I do like to celebrate big anniversaries, like the fifty-year birthday that both Hawaii Five-O and Laugh-In will celebrate next year.

So far, my favorite Daily POP Crosswords puzzle is the one I made for Thanksgiving about the Macy’s parade balloons. I learned so much about the balloons, and I was delighted to pass along all the trivia I discovered to my fellow parade fans. I hope everyone enjoyed solving it as much as I enjoyed constructing it.


A huge thank you to Robin for her time! Be sure to keep your eyes peeled for her puzzles in the Daily POP Crosswords app, free to download for both iOS and Android users!

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It’s Follow-Up Friday: Star Wars edition!

Welcome to Follow-Up Friday!

By this time, you know the drill. Follow-Up Friday is a chance for us to revisit the subjects of previous posts and bring the PuzzleNation audience up to speed on all things puzzly.

And today, we’re returning to the subject of Star Wars!

Star Wars: Episode VII: The Force Awakens hits theaters this week, and I thought I’d offer up a few links and some puzzly fun in the spirit of this much-beloved franchise.

#1: Google

Do yourself a favor and go to Google right now and type “A long time ago in a galaxy far far away” into the search bar. You will not be disappointed.

#2: A Star Wars StearsWords!

Crossword constructor and friend of the blog Robin Stears created this great Star Wars-fueled puzzle last year, and it’s a perfect way to celebrate Star Wars in a puzzly way. The loose grid construction allows for a lot more themed fun to be had!

#3: Holiday Special Trivia!

Our friends at Puzzopallo noted that it’s only appropriate for a new Star Wars film to open during the holidays, since Star Wars has something of a tradition with holiday releases.

They’re referring, of course, to the much-maligned Star Wars Holiday Special from 1978, which infamously featured a Wookiee holiday called Life Day, some hit ’70s musical acts, and some dubious comedy from Harvey Korman.

And they’ve come up with some Holiday Special trivia for ambitious Star Wars fans!

#4: Star Wars Riddles!

Naturally, I couldn’t resist throwing out some Star Wars-themed brain teasers for you to unravel. Can you puzzle out the answers to the four riddles and poem below?

1. Why do doctors make the best Jedi?

2. What do Gungans put things in?

3. What do you call the website Chewbacca started that gives out Imperial secrets?

4. What side of an Ewok has the most hair?

5. (written in Yoda-speak, it appears)

Atop my head, a crown I bear,
Nearby my crown, two guards uphold,
Life I devour, metals I dissect,
When seen I am, all life trembles,
If opposed I am, a thousand spears rain,
When cornered I am, hornets I unleash,
Yet controlled by thousands I am.
What am I?

Hopefully, you’ll enjoy one or all of these puzzly Star Wars treats! May the Force be with you, fellow puzzlers and PuzzleNationers!


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5 Questions: Alumni Edition

Undoubtedly one of the most popular features on the blog in 2013 was 5 Questions, our interview series featuring puzzle constructors, authors, filmmakers, game designers, puzzle enthusiasts, and creative people in general whose work and play relates to puzzles.

As 2013 was winding down, I reached out to our 5 Questions alumni to catch up and ask them what they’d been up to since appearing here last. (Or when I’m not pestering them for crossword construction advice or New Year’s Resolutions. *laughs*)

And so many of them were happy to share their latest projects with the PuzzleNation audience!

Author Robin Sloan’s marvelous novel Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is out in paperback, and the prequel story Ajax Penumbra 1969 is available as an eBook. I asked him about what he’s been doing, and his answer was brief and exciting:

Let’s see… I’m hard at work on a new novel!

That’s about it 😀

Can’t wait to see what he’s got in store for us next.

[Click here to check out Robin’s session of 5 Questions, as well as our book review of Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore here.]

Great Urban Race Senior Manager Jordan Diehl was also happy to bring us up to speed on what the GUR crew has been up to:

We just finished a successful Championship event in San Juan, Puerto Rico. It was our first time outside of the continental US, and the race was really well-received. Like in years past, a total of $10,000 was given out, but this year it was divided among the top 8 teams as opposed to years past where only first place received cash prizes.

The division of prizes will remain as we enter our 2014 season:
First place: $6,000
Second place: $2,000
Third place: $1,000
Fourth – Eighth place: $200 each

And speaking of, we are excited that our 2014 season is just around the corner!

We’ve consolidated our schedule for 2014; our first event is in late January and the last regular-schedule event of the season will be June 7. This leaves us room for another new Championship location in a potentially colder climate that we could not typically do in November/December (the usual dates of our Championship) as we are looking at an August/September Championship date.

Here at Great Urban Race, we’ve decided that 2014 is the “Year of You,” and we are focusing on listening to participant feedback more than ever. We put out a vote for Championship locations as well as several other campaigns like it through our social media pages.

[Be sure to check out the Great Urban Race website for more details, and click here to read Jordan’s session of 5 Questions.]

Kathy Matheson (a.k.a. puzzle blogger Crossword Kathy) had some interesting news to share, not only regarding her puzzle-constructing aspirations, but interacting with the PuzzleNation readership as well!

After the 5 Questions interview appeared, I was pleasantly surprised to get feedback from a couple of your readers! One is a fellow journalist here in Philly — I recognized his byline but have never met him, and didn’t know he was a puzzler, too. He told me about a local constructor he interviewed a few years ago, when she was 95! Now she’s about to turn 100, and he said she’s still making crosswords. Amazing. I hope to write a story about her myself, somehow tying it in to the just-passed centennial of the crossword.

The other person who contacted me is a constructor I admire who very kindly offered to help with my grid-building dreams. Part of me really wants to take him up on the offer, but part of me is very independent and wants to do it alone.

The truth is that I haven’t spent as much time constructing as I should, so perhaps I should do more of that before asking for help. I did send the L.A. Times one of my puzzles, which was rejected by a very nice note saying that “there’s some good work in your grid, but the theme puns are too stretchy” for their taste. Oh well.

[I have no doubt we’ll be seeing Kathy’s name in a puzzle byline in 2014. Click here to check out her session of 5 Questions!]

Puzzle poet Peter Valentine regularly posts his latest creations on Twitter and Tumblr — I’ve posted his poem “Birthday” for the 100th Anniversary of the crossword above — and has recently added another social media platform to his arsenal.

I’ve started an instagram feed, @peterboothby, which helps to reach many more folks and generate discussion.

[You can check out the full archive of his poems here, as well as his session of 5 Questions here.]

As you might’ve expected, constructor and puzzle historian David Steinberg has kept himself very busy between his own crossword construction and his work on the Pre-Shortzian Puzzle Project, which recently passed the 14,000 puzzle mark!

On December 21, the crossword centennial, I gave a talk at the Palos Verdes Peninsula Center Library on crossword history, the Pre-Shortzian Puzzle Project, and crossword editing, solving, and constructing. Also, I constructed a special centennial puzzle for the Focus page in The Orange County Register.

[Check out The Orange County Register, where David serves as crossword editor, as well as his session of 5 Questions here.]

Prolific constructor Robin Stears has been puzzling up a storm since last we spoke.

The dust has settled from the 100th anniversary celebrations, and of course, the other holidays took up some time, but I’m ready to get back to work. My daughter took pity on me and spent a day fixing my Tumblr blog so that it’s easier to find, sent out messages to all my Tumblr followers, and helped me set up a Tumblr-exclusive giveaway (to make up for my ineptitude). She even tweaked it for the holidays!

I’m starting off the year with a 21×21 StearsWords puzzle entitled “Things to Look Forward to in 2014.” There’s so much to look forward to, it needed a giant-size puzzle.

The Trivia Challenge puzzles seemed to be popular, so there will be more of those. I’ll continue to invite social media fans to send me their ideas and watch them come to life–a Reddit fan suggested “Doctor Who,” a Tumblr fan is responsible for the “Game of Thrones” puzzle, and a Facebook fan challenged me to do a “420” puzzle; clearly, I’m open to just about anything. (Someone asked me to do a cryptogram/crossword, where solvers have to decipher the clues, and then solve the puzzle. It sounds like a lot of work, but also a lot of fun; it also sounds perfect for a contest.)

Naturally, I’ll be keeping a close watch on what’s hot, just in case there’s another “Sharknado”-like event that begs to be immortalized in crossword. And solvers will still find the majority of my work in Penny/Dell puzzle books. They’ve been printing my puzzles for over twenty years, and I’m a huge fan of their puzzle books, as evidenced by the ginormous stack of Good Time Crosswords in my office.

[You can also join Team StearsWords by clicking here, and check out her session of 5 Questions here.]

As you might expect, David L. Hoyt has been busy. The most syndicated man in puzzles continues to produce his signature Jumble puzzles, but he also has a new puzzly product to share.

Just 2 Fun (pictured above) is David’s latest creation and his first app for younger players (ages 9 and up). The app is available for iPad, iPad mini, iPhone 4 and 5 and iPod touch devices. Just 2 Fun is a kids’ version of the enormously successful puzzle app Just 2 Words.

[You can explore all of David’s puzzly creations on his website, and check out his session of 5 Questions here.]

Even our latest interviewee, New York Times crossword editor Will Shortz, had something to share with us in the few weeks since appearing on the PuzzleNation Blog.

You may recall him mentioning his favorite pastime:

At the moment I’m close to finishing a personal goal — to play table tennis every day this year. As I write this (on Dec. 17), I’ve played every single day since Jan. 1 — 351 days in all.

I’m happy to report that Will did in fact complete his 365 days of table tennis for 2013, even throwing a party to celebrate. (I suspect New Year’s Eve may have also contributed to the festivities.)

[Check out Will’s contributions to NPR’s Weekend Edition here, as well as his session of 5 Questions here. We hope to have more information on his new puzzle magazine Will Shortz’s WordPlay very soon.]

Thank you to all of our 5 Questions alums! They helped make 2013 a banner year for PuzzleNation Blog, and as we head into 2014 with new interviews to come, I promise to keep you posted on everything these brilliant puzzly folks are up to.

Thanks for visiting the PuzzleNation blog today! You can like us on Facebookfollow us on Twitter, cruise our boards on Pinterest, check out our Tumblr, download our Classic Word Search iBook (recently featured by Apple in the Made for iBooks category!), play our games at PuzzleNation.com, or contact us here at the blog!

5 Questions with Puzzle Constructor Robin Stears

Welcome to the fourth edition of PuzzleNation Blog’s newest feature, 5 Questions!

We’re reaching out to puzzle constructors, video game writers and designers, writers, filmmakers, and puzzle enthusiasts from all walks of life, talking to people who make puzzles and people who enjoy them in the hopes of exploring the puzzle community as a whole.

And I’m excited to have Robin Stears as our latest 5 Questions interviewee!

Robin is a puzzle constructor whose crosswords appear not only on her StearsWords site, but have also appeared in Penny Press/Dell and Kappa titles as well as the Los Angeles Times. Her puzzles are clever and topical, often striving to add new entries and wrinkles to the field of crossword construction and cluing.

Robin 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 Robin Stears

1.) How did you get started with puzzles?

Crossword puzzles and word games have always appealed to me, and after my first daughter was born, I was looking for a way to work at home. My mom suggested the idea of constructing crossword puzzles, since I’d been killing time solving them while I was wondering what to do. Armed with a stack of dictionaries, graph paper, and pencils, I created a puzzle, and typed it on my mom’s typewriter, and colored in the black squares with a marker. I sent my first puzzle to Janis Weiner at Kappa, who promptly sent it back with a bunch of notes. I’m very grateful to her for taking the time to explain what I did wrong. It’s because of her I decided to try again. She rejected most of my puzzles at first, but she always explained why. I consider her my mentor, but she probably doesn’t know that.

2.) You recently constructed a puzzle utilizing that most infamous of cinematic weather phenomena, the sharknado. You have a knack for releasing topical puzzles steeped in pop culture. Is this more a case of keeping your puzzles fresh (since so many crosswords slip into archaic terms and dated references), or of you constructing the kinds of puzzles you’d enjoy solving?

It’s a little bit of both. I think language is fluid and crossword puzzles should reflect that. For example, the word “inception” wasn’t quite as popular in everyday conversation prior to the 2010 movie release as it is today. I don’t know about other constructors, but I find it very satisfying to be the first to use a new word in a crossword puzzle; I suspect they do, too, as evidenced by the number of times ZZZQUIL was used in puzzles when that product was introduced.

The fandom crossword puzzles were born from a comment I saw on Tumblr; someone complained that there weren’t any fandom puzzles. It occurred to me that the only specialty puzzle — where all the clues refer to a single theme — was the Bible puzzle, probably because there are nearly 600,000 words in it. There are about the same number of words in the Lord of the Rings books, though.

Nearly every fandom has a wiki, and a plethora of trivia websites, and by exploring them — along with the Internet Movie Database, Wikipedia, Reddit, and other sources, I was able to create several puzzles specifically for certain fandoms, including both Star Wars and Star Trek, “Adventure Time,” and “Doctor Who.” There is so much information online, that I was actually able to create the “Doctor Who” puzzle without having seen a single episode! My younger daughter’s a big fan, though; she inspired the “Adventure Time” one, too. They also allow me to pay homage to the things I love, like Stephen Colbert, Syfy movies, Donkey Kong, and the US Postal Service.

Every constructor’s style is a little different, and like most solvers, I have my favorites — Liz Gorski, Tyler Hinman, Brendan Emmett Quigley, Merl Reagle, Matt Gaffney, Trip Payne, and of course, Patrick Blindauer, whose dollar bill crossword puzzle is my personal all-time favorite. We all put our personal stamp on the puzzles we create. But, the modern crossword puzzle is about to turn one hundred years old, and if they’re going to remain relevant in the modern world, they have to change and adapt to suit younger solvers. That means constructors need to use the Urban Dictionary as well as Webster’s.

3.) You’re also a published author with several titles to your credit. How does the creative process for writing a book compare to that of creating a crossword?

Writing fiction and writing crossword clues are completely different processes. A novel is a long, leisurely cross-country trip, while a crossword clue is a quick peek around the corner. It took me about a year to write each book, after researching it for months, and another six months of editing. Crossword puzzles may take anywhere from an hour to a day to complete, depending on the size and the theme entries. In the past few years, partly for the instant gratification, partly because it’s more lucrative, and partly because it’s more fun, I’ve concentrated more on crossword puzzles, although I do have another novel I intend to finish.

4.) What’s next for Robin Stears?

Well, there’s that novel… eventually. In the meantime, I’d like to attend more puzzle events, like Lollapuzzoola and the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament. Last year, I volunteered at my local tournament, and it was fun meeting the participants and discussing the puzzles they’d solved — there’s no substitute for immediate feedback. Solving crosswords is very different from constructing them. I have a database at my disposal, and I have great respect for solvers who have to remember all those clues! I’d like to meet the constructors I admire to exchange ideas and hear their stories, and Amy Reynaldo and Kathy Matheson (Crossword Kathy), whose blogs are so informative and whose ideas and opinions I respect — it’s because of Amy’s “Diary of a Crossword Fiend” blog that I removed certain words from my database, like APER. I’d love to finally meet the people behind PuzzleNation, Cruciverb, Sporcle, and Quinapalus, and all the other puzzle-related sites. Constructing crosswords is a lonely business — I need to get out more.

The fandom trivia puzzles are a challenge, so you’ll probably see more of those. Fans of “Breaking Bad” will see a special puzzle at the end of September for the final episode, and baseball trivia fans can expect their puzzle in October, during the World Series. For Halloween, I’m planning a horror movie puzzle, and of course, I’ll do something for the 100th anniversary of crosswords in December — I’m open to ideas for that one.

Ben Tausig recently pointed out in an article in “The Hairpin” that there seem to be fewer women constructors, and I’d love to help remedy that. When I first started, twenty-odd years ago, constructing a crossword puzzle was difficult and time-consuming — these days, most constructors use software with a built-in database of words and clues. My personal choice is Crossword Compiler. I think anyone with a basic knowledge of the rules and a bit of computer savvy could create and publish a crossword puzzle. I believe there’s plenty of room in the crossword puzzle world for new constructors with new ideas. Technology and the opportunities for puzzle creators and solvers to interact with one another will change the ways crosswords are created. I had a lot of help in the beginning, and I hope to pay it forward to the next generation of crossword constructors.

[[Glenn’s sidenote: Robin also had a lot of interesting points regarding the move toward digital puzzle distribution, and I think that topic deserves a post of its own. Keep your eyes peeled for that post (and her thoughtful comments) in the near future!]]

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

When I construct a crossword puzzle, I always have the fans in mind. I want to create a solving experience that’s fun and enjoyable for them. The entire time I was constructing a special “420” puzzle, which, to my knowledge, had never been done before, I was imagining how surprised and delighted some puzzle solvers would be that week. And like the Super Bowl puzzle and the Harry Potter puzzle, I knew that not everybody would appreciate it, but the ones who did would appreciate it all the more because I constructed it especially for them.

When I construct puzzles for Penny Press/Dell, I also have a certain fan in mind — someone who enjoys an easier solve, with a little less pop culture and a little more word play. No matter which publisher I’m targeting, I’m always thinking about the puzzle solvers and what they might enjoy. Frequently, I construct customized crossword puzzles as gifts; they’re always a big hit because they’re personal.

So, my advice is this: Tell me what you want! Send me an email, tweet me, write on my Facebook or Google+, hit me up on Blogger or Tumblr — StearsWords is not hard to find. I maintain a variety of social media because I want puzzle fans of all kinds to interact with me. Much of my day is spent scanning social sites like Twitter, Pinterest, and Reddit and reading puzzle blogs, trying to find out what kinds of topics might interest puzzle solvers. Anyone can send me an idea for a puzzle, and if I like it, I’ll do my best to make it happen. I’d rather give puzzle fans what they really want than give them what I want them to have and hope they like it.

Many thanks to Robin Stears for her time. Check out her StearsWords puzzles on her website, and follow her on Twitter (https://twitter.com/RobinStears)! I can’t wait to see what puzzly goodness she cooks up for us next.

Thanks for visiting the PuzzleNation blog today! Don’t forget about our PuzzleNation Community Contest, running all this week! You can like us on Facebook, follow us on Twitter, check out our Classic Word Search iBook (three volumes to choose from!), play our games at PuzzleNation.com, or contact us here at the blog!