Puzzles and Codes

Elizabeth Somers–the main character in the Winterhouse books–loves puzzles and codes, and there are a lot of them in Winterhouse and The Secret of Winterhouse.

Anagrams are Elizabeth’s particular favorite.  An anagram is where you take a word or phrase, and then you rearrange the letters to form another word or phrase, like this: “astronomers” can be turned into “moon starers,” or “stormy weather” can become “may throw trees.”  A few years ago I realized my last name, Guterson, can be turned into the word “sturgeon.”  If you want to learn more about anagrams, go here; and if you want to create your own anagrams, go here for a very fascinating anagram-generating website.  Here are a few entertaining anagrams:

  • Conversation = Voices rant on
  • Schoolmaster = The classroom
  • Dormitory = Dirty room
  • Eleven plus two = Twelve plus one
  • The eyes = They see
  • Hot water = Worth tea
  • Debit card = Bad credit
  • The countryside = No city dust here
  • Vacation time = I am not active
  • A decimal point = I’m a dot in place
  • A gentleman = Elegant man

Another type of puzzle Elizabeth and her friend Freddy Knox enjoy is known as a Word Ladder.  In a Word Ladder, you start with two words (your starting word and your ending word), and then–changing only one letter at a time to create a new word–you work your way from your starting word toward your ending word.  It sounds kind of confusing, but an example will probably make things clear, so, here’s a Word Ladder where we start with “cold” and turn it into “warm”:






Lewis Carroll (whose real name was Charles Dodgson), the author of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, is considered the inventor of this sort of puzzle (he called it a “Doublet” rather than a Word Ladder), and he even wrote a little book about it, which you can find here.  If you want to learn more about Word Ladders, go here; and if you want to create your own, go here to find a very clever website.

Another fun type of wordplay that can be found in Winterhouse and that will turn up a bit more in The Secret of Winterhouse is something called an ambigram.  While there are many different types of ambigrams, the basic idea is that a certain word or phrase can be looked at from a different direction or orientation and it will still make a word or phrase.  Sounds very complicated, for sure, but just take a look at this example–if you turn the word “ambigram” upside down, you’ll still see the word “ambigram”:

Or try this one, which occurs in The Secret of Winterhouse–the word “faith” can be read either right-side-up or upside-down:

One more–when I was about 12 or 13, I figured out how to write my own first name as an ambigram:

If you want to learn more about ambigrams, go here; if you want to see some examples of more ambigrams, go here; and if you want to try your hand at creating your own, go here.

The most important sort of code in Winterhouse is one known as the Vigenere cipher.  This is a very old and sort of complicated method of writing in code language, but by using it, a person can create coded messages that are very difficult to break.  If you want more background on the Vigenere cipher, go here; if you want to see a very good explanation of how the cipher works, go here; and if you want to try to create and solve your own Vigenere ciphers, go here.

Here is the part from Winterhouse where Elizabeth first encounters the Vigenere cipher while reading a strange book entitled A Guide for Children: Games, Secrets, Pastimes, and More:

After a bit of tossing and turning when she realized she wasn’t going to get back to sleep, Elizabeth dressed, brushed her hair and teeth; and then, to fully put her thoughts at ease, she began reading A Guide for Children, including chapters on “How to throw your voice,” and “How to disguise yourself with unique costumes.” She thumbed through the book and found one near the end entitled “How to write unbreakable codes by using the Vigenere Cipher.” It began like this:

 Dear reader, this is the single most important chapter in the entire book, because codes and secret messages are very dear to my heart. If you have found this book, study this chapter very carefully!           

Elizabeth felt a chill go through her. She continued to read.

The Vigenere Cipher is one of the greatest secret-code methods ever invented. If you learn it, you can write codes that are next-to-impossible to break, and so you can write messages to your friends that no one else will be able to read. All you need is a keyword that you and your friend both know—but make sure you don’t forget the keyword! Beyond that, if you can follow the instructions in this chapter, you will be well on your way to writing coded sentences that will look like gobbledygook to other people, but will conceal your deepest secrets in safety.

She read the chapter carefully, which even had an alphabet grid on one page and an example to work through. The grid—or Vigenere Square, as Riley S. Granger called it—looked like this:


The example in the book was the sentence: “Look at the beautiful picture,” while the keyword was “hotel”; and Riley S. Granger explained that by using the keyword, a person could transform “Look at the beautiful picture” into the unbreakable code sentence of “Scho la hai mlonxtmie ttjhnvp.”

The way it worked was by “laying” your keyword over the sentence you wanted to turn into a code, and then using the Vigenere Square to help you along. That is, you matched the “h” in “hotel” with the “l” in “look,” and where they intersected in the grid you found the letter “s.” Working through the entire sentence gave you this:

h O t e l h o t e l h O t e l h O t e l h o t e l
l O o k a t t h e b e A u t i f U l p i c t u r e
s C h o l a h a i m l O n x t m I e t t j h n v p


That’s incredible, Elizabeth thought. No one could break that.