Gail Marie Beckman is a cruciverbalist—a self-proclaimed word nerd with a gift for crafting custom crossword puzzles.
The rural Sandy Valley, Nevada, entrepreneur created her first puzzle in 1990 as a workplace training tool.
“I am such a spelling fanatic,” she says. “I worked at a cable TV company, and the technicians and installers would spell cable C-A-B-E-L on the work orders. Things like that drove me nuts.”
Her first puzzle forced the technicians
to spell all the words—including cable—correctly to finish the puzzle.
That puzzle was then shared with 13 affiliates in the cable group. Thanks to that, Gail got her first commission.
“Someone came to me, and had seen the puzzle, and said, ‘Can you write a crossword about my dad?’” Gail says. “I had no idea if I could or not.”
Turns out, she could.
Since the dad in question was a crossword pro, Gail got tricky and taxed his memory. One down was an 11-letter answer where he had to fill in the beginning initial of every one of his 11 grandchildren in birth order.
“You can’t get the rest of the stuff working unless you get that one,” Gail says. “You have to be tricky with people who are really good.”
Gail composed word search puzzles and crosswords on a variety of subjects. She has puzzled people about hummingbirds, wine, beer, flamingos and cars.
She has likely even saved lives with puzzles, such as when she helped train California firefighters about hazardous materials or when she advanced health care education via puzzles.
“I had Johns Hopkins’ website request a crossword on gastrointestinal diseases, which not a lot of people would have fun doing,” she says.
But Gail does have fun—and the quirky requests keep coming, like the time Purina hired her to educate puzzle solvers about Horse Chow.
“I had to sign a contract saying I wouldn’t divulge the secret recipe for Horse Chow to anyone I knew,” she says. “OK, that’s easy.”
While many of her puzzles are used for corporate internal entertainment or education, Gail says they also are good for outreach.
Puzzles can be a great tool for businesses to get potential customers to search for services they offer or learn more about the company. Gail says customers will eagerly fill out a puzzle if there is a prize. Something as simple as lunch for two will get people to drop everything and study the business.
Gail speaks widely about her business, and gets plenty of work through word of mouth.
Close to home, she puts together a community magazine in Sandy Valley and packs it with puzzles sponsored by local advertisers. She also has written several puzzle books, including a book about Las Vegas attractions that was mostly drafted at the overlook to Red Rock Canyon.
While customers don’t flock out to Red Rock to find her, they do find her—some via her website, customcrosswords.com.
She secured that site in 1991 “when everyone said this web thing is never going to work out,” she says.
Gail has been prolific writing about brides and grooms, with more than 150 custom puzzles commissioned.
“InStyle magazine put together a story on 101 ways to personalize your wedding, and I was No. 37,” she says.
People hold onto wedding editions a long time, and Gail still gets jobs from that January 2000 InStyle story.
Gail believes a customized wedding puzzle is money well spent because the couple gets a framable version, and the wedding guests have something fun to do while they are waiting for pictures to be taken. Plus, it acts as a great icebreaker as guests rush around the room trying to find the aunt whose middle name is a vital clue.
One of Gail’s more recent public puzzles was created for the late Betty White. In an interview, the well-loved actress revealed she was thrilled to be a clue in a TV Guide crossword. So, Gail wrote a crossword with Betty as the solo star and shipped it off to her agent to pass on for Betty’s 99th birthday.
One fun thing about Gail’s work is the subject doesn’t have to be famous to have a puzzle all their own.
“One of my favorites was a gentleman in Washington state who wanted a puzzle all about his girlfriend and her family,” Gail says. “The bottom line literally was, ‘Will you marry me?’ She said yes.”