Puzzling It Out

In Orson Scott Card’s book on writing fantasy and science fiction, he says something to the effect that inspiration is more likely to come to the writer hunched over the keyboard than the one playing video games in the basement.  I think that’s true more often than not, as the writer glued to the keyboard is more likely to be immersed in the story than the one playing a video game, especially a game that requires strategy, a quest or battle game.  I do find, however, that my subconscious works on story problems when I’m not at the keyboard.

I love working jigsaw puzzles.  The boy gives me a new one for every birthday and Christmas.  While I’m matching colors and sorting pieces, the back of my brain is working on what’s happening in the story I’m writing.

“Oh, right,” some of you are probably saying, “just pull the other one and get it over with.”

Really, it’s true.  It’s sort of like washing dishes and letting the brain run with other topics.  The boy has given me some beautiful puzzles over the years–dolphins and other fish under the ocean, wolves in a snowy forest, a golden retriever puppy in a garden, dragons (including the one shown at left above), an array of comic book covers, TV figures of different eras, the skyline of Manhattan, a variety of rainforest frogs.  Most of these are 1000 pieces, though some are only 600.  I used to work jigsaw puzzles with him when he was little–superheroes and gargoyles and knights and castles.

I’m very methodical in my approach.  I lock as much of the edge together as I can, making a frame, then work inward from there.  If there are large figures that can be easily identified among the pieces, I also work on those within the frame.

While I’m doing this, options for the story come into my head, play through a bit, and then either become the new plan or go back into the dustbin area of my subconscious.

Playing Tetris on the boy’s discarded N64 system is like working a jigsaw puzzle, but easier.  You twist the pieces to fit so they form blocks, then fill a line across to break those blocks.  I sometimes play Tetris to let things work out.  A 1000-piece jigsaw puzzle takes up half the dining room table, and we sometimes need that space.  Tetris is quicker.

Working jigsaw puzzles or playing Tetris relaxes me and lets my brain run in new paths for a while.  Besides which, I enjoy doing it.  I learned to work jigsaw puzzles from my grandfather, who also liked for us to draw stick figures and make up stories about them.  For a long time, I couldn’t draw anything without making up an accompanying story.

I also  enjoy working crossword puzzles.  I like to start my day with the one in the New York Times, which I work in ink because I can’t see it if I do it in pencil.  I’ve been working the Times puzzle long enough that I know certain clues always mean certain things.  The puzzles get harder as the week progresses, with Saturday the most difficult of all.  Or so they say.  I’ve recently found Fridays challenging.

The dh likes crossword puzzles, too, and we consult over the Saturday and Sunday ones.  I’m so used to starting the day with the puzzle, getting my brain into a groove that way, I feel a little off-kilter if I miss out on the puzzle–as when we’re away from home and the hotel doesn’t carry the NYT in the gift shop.  I started working them because of my uncle, who found crossword puzzles a great way to pass the day when he was hospitalized with cancer.  Years later, in bed for a month because of back surgery, I decided to try crosswords as a way to pass the time and found I liked it.

(Of course, I also liked killing time during my convalescence by watching a show called Cover-Up, a spy series starring Jennifer O’Neill and the tragically deceased Jon Erik Hexum, who had a marvelous baritone voice.  The show also had a great theme song, Bonnie Tyler’s “Holding Out for a Hero.”  But shows starring hunky heroes are a topic for another blog.)

The dh usually gives me a book of NYT crossword puzzles for Christmas.  When I finally work them all, I can’t bear to throw the book away–it’s a book, after all!–so I get him to do it.  He likes throwing things away, so this works well for us.

What works well for you as a distraction or a way to let your subconscious work or a way just to kill time?  Do you work jigsaw puzzles or crosswords or play video games?  Do you venture into the number-laden land of Sudoku?

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  • Fedora says:

    Hmm… I like puzzles too–I’m not great at any of them so the crosswords or word jumbles or sudoku they publish in the daily newspaper are definitely way hard enough for me! I also like crocheting or knitting or that sort of thing, too–it’s satisfying to have something to show for my time, and it lets my brain turn off the parts that are working hard 😉

    Those are some gorgeous jigsaws you’ve done, Nancy!!

    • Nancy Northcott says:

      Thanks, Fedora! I never learned to knit or crochet, but they look like the kinds of things that require a certain amount of focus but would free up the subconscious, too. My mom loved to knit and made some beautiful things.

      Congrats on the rooster!

    • Helen says:

      Have fun with the bird today Fedora


    • Jo Robertson says:

      I agree with you Fedora. The puzzles usually end up giving me a headache! And I’m horrible at Sudoku!

      Congrats on getting the golden rooster!

  • Jane says:

    Hi Nancy,
    I love jigsaw and crossword puzzles. I definitely hope doing these puzzles keep my brain sharp. Sudoku is not for me, but my father likes the challenge.

    • Nancy Northcott says:

      Sudoku is not for me, either, Jane. The numbers don’t click with my brain. I envy people who can do it, though.

      The dh assures me working puzzles keeps the brain sharp.

    • Jo Robertson says:

      I’m sure your brain (and Nancy’s) will be sharp for a long time. At least the studies are showing that folks who play chess, read, do puzzles and the like keep their brains active longer than those who don’t.

      Too bad tevision watching doesn’t count!

  • Hey Nancy!

    I play Word Round Up games that are in the on-line edition of the local paper. They’re pretty easy, but I try to solve the puzzle in under two minutes.

    I barely remember Cover-Up. Off to Google it now! Congrats on the GR, Fedora.

    • Nancy Northcott says:

      Jennifer, are those the ones with the grid of letters conlcealing words? Our local paper has a word jumble that’s fun, but I seldom read it anymore. So much if the news in it comes out of other cities, it barely qualifies as local anymore.

    • Nancy Northcott says:

      Forgot to say I think Cover Up only lasted a couple of seasons. I was watching it in syndication in the Lifetime network, so it ran every day. Hexum was fooling with a prop gun on the set and shot himself in the head with a blank cartridge. At close range, the blank can do damage, and he suffered a brain injury that proved fatal. It was very sad. The guy who replaced him was good but didn’t have the same mix of hunkiness and humor.

    • Jo Robertson says:

      Hey, Jen, I don’t know those Word Round Ups. Are they in local papers only?

  • Nancy, I really enjoyed your piece. It’s interesting – what gets my subconscious working the best is getting tied up in a really good book I’m reading. You wouldn’t think that would work, would you? But it’s like while I’m reading, my conscious mind is so occupied, my subconscious breathes a sigh of relief and goes off and does its own thing. And that’s when the good stuff comes. Other things that help are swimming or even just looking at water like the sea or a river and walking. There’s something about that mindless repetitive action that again lets the subconscious off its leash to do its worst (or its best).

    • I agree. There’s something magical about water. Heck, even taking a shower sometimes frees the subconscious to figure out a plot point. THe best, for me though, is walking near the ocean where I can hear the surf and see the waves. Rejuevenating and good for the subconscious (says she who is far from an ocean in central Ohio).

    • Nancy Northcott says:

      Anna, it’s interesting that you can let your subconscious run when you’re reading. That’s a new one to me.

      I think there really is something about moving water. I get ideas in the shower or while washing dishes,

  • Mary Preston says:

    I love puzzles & crosswords. I have a site I go to each morning. I have 4 favorites to jump start my brain.

    I’m hopeless at sudoku, but my Mother & daughter are brilliant at it.

    • Nancy Northcott says:

      Mary, I can’t do Sudoku, either, and envy those who do. What are your favorite sites?

  • Heathercm2001 says:

    Puzzles are such a great way for me to relax. I enjoy the jigsaw ones, but as you said, they sometimes take up some much needed space. Logic puzzle books definitely help me save some space. My favorites are by Conceptis. They have one called Paint-doku. It’s similar to sudoku, but the end result is a picture made up of filled in squares. I absolutely love it. Other than that, other crafty projects help me relax as well. Knitting, crocheting, scrapbooking, stained glass, etc.

    • Nancy Northcott says:

      Conceptis might work for me since it doesn’t involve numbers. I have a couple of beautiful stained glass pieces a friend made for me and some small pieces I bought. What kinds of things do you like making?

      • Heathercm2001 says:

        I’m still pretty new at it, but I really enjoy making geometric designs that let me use all kinds of colors. Plus the straight egress are easier to cut :). I made an ornament last Christmas for everyone in my birthday club. My next project is the first thing I’ve designed myself. It’s going to be of my dog that passed away in October. I can’t wait to do it!

    • Jo Robertson says:

      Paint-doku. How interesting. I haven’t heard of that, Heather. I ‘ll have to try it.

  • Dianna aka Hrdwrkdmom says:

    My poison is Spider Solitaire, I have to have a couple games every morning just to let my brain know it is time to get in gear.

  • Aloha, Nancy! I watch mindless TV/reality shows such as Storage Wars, Parking Wars, and Celebrity Apprentice. My kids watch it and learn a lessons in bad manners.

    • Nancy Northcott says:

      LOL! Yeah, there are lots of shows offering lessons in bad manners these days.

      The dh likes Pawn Stars and American Pickers, though the people in there are usually fairly polite.

  • Nancy – I love doing jigsaw puzzles. Our challenge, though, is finding a big enough clear space to actually work the puzzle. I enjoy the communal silence when others are working the puzzle with me. Most recently I did a multi-layer puzzle of London. FIrst you put together a map of London as of 1638 (or some similar date), then you build a more current map of London on top of the old map. Finally you add buildings according to a timeline as to when they were put in place.

    I love suduku. I can work a “hard” puzzle in about 12 minutes so it’s easy to start and finish them in a short period of time. While I enjoy crossword puzzles – those take longer. Can’t say that doing the puzzles releases the subconscious though. I think crosswords and suduku take focus. Exercise, like aerobics or walking, works better for me.

    • Nancy Northcott says:

      That London puzzle sounds really, really hard.

      When one of my guys helps me on a puzzle, we’re usually talking, so no communal silences here. It figures you can do sudoku, being a math person and all.

      Interesting that movement works for you. Are you a kinesthetic learner or do you only use movement for subconscious things?

  • Helen says:


    I too like jigsaw puzzles but other than helping the grandkids with some very small ones I haven’t done one in years LOL. I don’t have any space these days and i am sure the grandkids would find it fun to mess it up on me LOL.

    I play solitare or bejeweled blitz when i want some time to think thing s through and I also find the water very thought provoking but I don’t get there often enough although it is only 6 weeks till we sail on our cruise and I will have plenty of time laying on a deck chair watching the ocean and reading I can’t wait.

    Have Fun

    • Nancy Northcott says:

      Helen, you’d definitely have trouble reserving table space and keeping up with pieces! I bet those kids are fun, though.

      Your cruise sounds great. I’d like to take one, but the dh has no interest, alas.

    • Jo Robertson says:

      You must be counting down the days until your cruise, Helen. Where are you going?

      • Helen says:

        We are counting down the days now YAY

        We are going to Noumea, Port Villa, Mystery Island, Isle of Pines and three ports in Fiji and can’t wait 2 weeks of rest and adventure at the same time LOL

        And some time to do a few crosswords and find a words which are easier for me

        Have Fun

  • Mozette says:

    What works well for you as a distraction or a way to let your subconscious work or a way just to kill time? Do you work jigsaw puzzles or crosswords or play video games? Do you venture into the number-laden land of Sudoku?

    I can’t do number-orientated things… my brain doesn’t work that way. However, watching a movie I’ve seen a few times makes my mind wander a bit… like ‘Galaxy Quest’. Nothing like a comedy where the stars swear like you wouldn’t believe but something else is dubbed over… I also hardly watch the movie because I’ve seen it a dozen times and I know the dialogue.

    Also, I don’t do jigsaw puzzles. Instead, I sit in front of painting with Santana on the turntable up full blast and my brain goes into meditation mode… that’s how I get my brain to think.
    And washing up does get my mind to go other places. Agatha Christie did this too. She used to get her best ideas doing this chore. I also get my best ideas either sitting outside in my back yard looking at my garden and the sky, having a hot shower and washing my hair (it’s the massaging of my scalp that must do it) or just before I drop off to sleep…

    • Nancy Northcott says:

      Mozette, there seems to be a water theme in here. I love Galaxyquest, too. When I’m trying to get my brain into a fantasy groove, I watch The 13th Warrior with Antonio Banderas.

      Interesting about the music. I can’t write to anything with lyrics.

  • eilis flynn says:

    I wash the dishes, since the dishwasher doesn’t work (it runs, but if you have to send something through four or five times, it’s easier to just wash it by hand once and be done with it). The brain takes a breather, and can do other things with the other parts.

    • Nancy Northcott says:

      We use our dishwasher only when we have guests. Right now, it doesn’t dry, so we don’t use it at all. Our kitchen is too small to leave the door open for air-drying.

  • Laney4 says:

    Sudoku puzzles.
    Kakuro puzzles (with my own cheat sheet strategically placed).
    Spider Solitaire.
    Jigsaw puzzles.
    Roundup/Wonderword puzzles.
    Crossword puzzles.
    Yep. I enjoy them all. Especially the first two right before I turn off my tiny bedroom light for the night.

  • Janga says:

    My sister does puzzles to relax and think through problems too, Nancy. She likes jigsaws but prefers logic puzzles and acrostics to crosswords. Driving does it for me or sitting by the river or listening to music. I can’t write with music, but I have often found the answers to my story questions in the lyrics of a song.

    • Nancy Northcott says:

      I can’t write to music with lyrics, but soundtracks and symphonic pieces are great.

      I sometimes get ideas while driving, too. Back when RWA programs came on tape, I’d listen to one on a trip, get an idea for a story and start playing with it, then realize I’d missed a big chunk of the tape.

  • Addison Fox says:

    Great post, Nancy!

    I totally agree that puzzles can help us work through other things. I also think that the joy of working through a puzzle is that it encourages us to have some quiet time. So even though we’re doing a different activity, we’re also allowing our brain to work through several things at once!


    • Nancy Northcott says:

      Thanks, Addison. I hadn’t thought about it, but I do get some quiet time with the jigsaw puzzles because I work on them for a while after the guys go to bed.

  • Anna Sugden says:

    I LOVED Cover-Up! At least until JEH died. It was such a fun concept.

    I enjoy puzzles – crossword, Sudoku or Hanjie (also called pictogram), jigsaw. Anything that involved using logic. I also love computer games – especially adventure games, like the old Kings Quest series by Sierra. These days, adventure games tend to be more hidden object, but there are still some fun ones around.

    • Nancy Northcott says:

      The guys gave me a quest game for the computer one Christmas, and it didn’t work out well. I made too many false starts. The dh, who generally loathes any new technology, was much better at it. But he’s more patient than I am. You must be, too, Anna.

      • Anna Sugden says:

        Funnily enough, for someone who is probably ADD, it’s the one thing I can focus on for long periods of time, Nancy. But only if it has a story *g*.

        My new time-waster is called Munchies and is a logical puzzle game for the iPad. Addictive, but good for switching my brain off!

  • Dianna Love says:

    I love puzzles, too, Nancy. I think drives us wanting to constantly create complex problems for our characters to solve. I love pretty much any logic puzzle with numbers or words and definitely the puzzles you put together. I was saying the other day that I had to teach myself how to slow down and take a break to just ‘think’ sometimes in the middle of a story, which is hard for someone who never wants to be still and always wants to be productive. But taking my brain away to play on a puzzle is often the most productive thing I can do. At least for a short time. I do love Sudoku – keep several with me at all times, especially traveling so I can do something while the airplane is taking off and landing.

  • Nancy Northcott says:

    See, there’s that number thing again, Dianna.

    Sometimes it’s hard to stop and step back from a story, especially if there’s a deadline looming, I’d imagine. A good puzzle really can be absorbing.

  • Jo Robertson says:

    Fascinating topic, Nancy! I think it’s very healthy to do trivial or meaningless work while puzzling out writing plots or family problems or whatever. I used to love doing handwork — embroidery or crochet while watching television. And loved nursing my babies so I COULD sit down a minute and watch TV LOL. Of course, nursing babies isn’t meaningless!

    I never got into puzzles or crosswords. I think I’m too impatient!

    • Nancy Northcott says:

      Jo, I used to do needlepoint, but I gave it up because it was taking so much time. And getting the pieces blocked and mounted was more than I wanted to spend, alas.

  • catslady says:

    I have 3 container bins full of jigsaw puzzles – I’ve probably done a third of them (more than once for some) but I haven’t done them in years partly because I have too many cats who love to steal or eat the pieces. I bought one of those rollup felt pads but I had to spend too much tiime refixing. I can’t stand to get give them away though thinking some day…I also use to do a log of crossword puzzles (and other crafts) but the computer has taken over my world. I do play games on it though such as bejewedl which is mindless but word games and various types too. The only thing I have never given up and never will is reading time 🙂

    • Nancy Northcott says:

      I won’t give up reading time, either, Catslady. Ouch on the cats stealing puzzle pieces. Makes it tough to work the puzzle. One new puzzle the boy gave me was missing a piece, and that was really annoying.

      I re-work puzzles from time to time, which is also fun.

  • Annie West says:

    Nancy, great post. I think you’re onto something regarding activities that let your mind play and refresh. I find even just getting out into the garden or to bring in the washing, or perhaps doing some cooking – something I can do and let my mind drift, is excellent. I do jigsaw puzzles but rarely because of the need to use the table occasionally! Cross stitch and tapestry, which I used to do when I had more time, had the same effect, which is one of the reasons I’m planning to start up the sewing again this month. But if you’re talking about immediate inspiration I’m like Anna and Donna – water works for me – a shower or a walk by the water seems to help me get my creative side working.

    • Nancy Northcott says:

      Thanks, Annie! Yeah, the puzzle hogging the table can be a problem. I try to avoid time when we’re having guests. We also have a big plywood lap board that can hold a fairly large puzzle if the dimensions are right. We’ve figured out how to slide it on there.

      I think there’s something about running water and creativity. More people mention it, and it works for me, too.

  • Kim says:

    I do puzzles, but I also take tests. I’ll get an SAT book or algebra test booklet out of the library and see if I still remember the material.

    • Nancy Northcott says:

      Kim, I hadn’t heard of taking practice tests before. That’s a cool idea. I’m afraid I’ve lost a lot, especially in science and math.

  • LilMissMolly says:

    I’m addicted to Pocket Frogs.