PITTSFIELD -- Anyone who may have finished solving - or more likely, attempted - the crossword puzzle in the New York Times on Sept. 1, experienced the work of a Pittsfield man. Twenty-eight-year-old Tim Croce constructed the mental word challenge at his home on Morningview Drive, and his name appeared above the puzzle’s grid.
"That’s a big part of the appeal," Croce said that day, with the newspaper open on his kitchen table to the crossword in The Arts section.
Croce’s puzzles have been published on 17 occasions in the Times, with others already been accepted for future issues.
"I’ve been doing them forever," he said. "I started solving the newspaper-style crosswords with my parents when I was very young -- like 6 or 7." So far, Croce has aimed for the top and reached it. The Times is considered by serious puzzle folks to be the leader, but Croce says he’s considering submitting some puzzzles to the Los Angeles Times and the Boston Globe.
Croce works as a civil engineer for the City of Pittsfield’s Department of Public Works & Utilities. His day job mainly involves reviewing plans and solving issues relating to drainage, roads, water and sewers.
In his professional capacity, as well as when he’s traveling around the area, he repeatedly hears words and phrases that seem perfect for inclusion in the next crossword puzzle.
Croce submitted his first puzzle to the Times in 2001, while still a senior in high school in Torrington, CT. He assumed the crossword editor, Will Shortz, had rejected the puzzle when he didn’t hear back, and was astonished when Shortz emailed him earlier this year (over a decade later!) to say the puzzle was accepted for publication.
"I don’t know if it was lost in the mail or just lost in the shuffle," Croce said. "At first, I asked Will if he was sure this one’s mine." Croce normally hears back from the Times three or four months after submitting a crossword, and thinks about one out of every four he sends to Shortz is accepted. (In addition to being the Times crossword puzzle editor, Will Shortz also conducts an on-air puzzle quiz on National Public Radio’s Weekend Edition.)
Croce’s puzzle from 2001 has yet to be printed. While such a long delay between a puzzle’s construction and its publication is unusual, there is normally a lag between when a puzzle is written and when it winds up in print. Croce created the crossword that was published on Sept. 1 in late 2010.
Croce spends an hour or two a day creating or solving crossword puzzles, a hobby his wife Christine says doesn’t bother her. "Sometimes I bounce ideas off of her," Croce said.
A crossword puzzle is a simple product: interlocking words arranged on a grid share letters, and clues provide hints about the words that run down or across the grid.
Constructing a puzzle is a challenge for Croce, especially one that is judged good enough to appear in the notoriously difficult Times. The paper runs a daily crossword, with the puzzles becoming more difficult as the week progresses, so Monday’s puzzle is the easiest, Tuesday’s is a bit harder, and on and on. Of Croce’s 17 crosswords published in the Times, all of them ran between Wednesday and Saturday. Others have been accepted for use in Monday and Tuesday editions.
"Monday is very easy. Saturday is very difficult," Croce said, as he pointed at his puzzle from Sept. 1, which was a Saturday. "Sunday is a larger puzzle that’s between a Wednesday and a Thursday-level of difficulty." Unlike puzzles run on other days, those published on Fridays and Saturdays don’t share a common theme.
Croce completes the Times crossword every day, unless, of course, it’s one of his own. Besides the enjoyment it brings, the exercise allows him to see the words and themes being used by his fellow puzzle-makers.
His goal is to have puzzles appear on all seven days. "Sunday’s the only one missing," Croce said. "To use a baseball analogy, they say that’s hitting for the cycle."
Croce often begins constructing a crossword on a piece of heavily ruled graph paper. "Usually it starts with one word, and usually the entry is at One Across," he said. "I’ve built entire puzzles just setting an answer at One Across, and then working from there to see where it goes." The puzzles are then transferred from paper to Croce’s home computer, and finished using a crossword-building software application. It’s faster than using a pencil, but the puzzle-maker still must decide on the words, grid designs and the wording of clues.
"I see what letter patterns are needed," he said. "Say, if there’s a ‘J’ in that square, you can’t have a ‘Q’ below it." Some words, like Oreo, oleo and era, appear often in crosswords because they are rich with vowels and common letters, and easier to intermesh with other words.
Once he has filled a portion of a puzzle with words and phrases that properly share consonants and vowels, Croce begins forming the pattern of black squares that give crosswords their characteristic look.
Instead of surrounding himself with volumes of dictionaries and encyclopedias, Croce performs such consultations electronically.
Even when drawing with paper at the kitchen table, he uses his phone to gather information. Sitting at his computer, he goes online to research letter combinations and word possibilities.
Croce says writing the clues consumes the most amount of time during a puzzle’s construction. He can finish some in about three hours. Other puzzles are built intermittently over months.
"You’ve got to be brief and you’ve also got to find some way to be clever, or include some word play or misdirect the solvers," he said, explaining how to write clues.
For one of Croce’s published crosswords, the clue was "Bird." The answer was ONE FINGER SALUTE.
Croce’s dealings with Will Shortz occur via email. This is how he learns puzzles are accepted or rejected, or accepted but in need of some tweaking. Croce doesn’t fear opening Shortz’s electronic messages. "In the subject line you can tell if he’s accepted it -- or not."