Question No. 1: This seven-word stock line, first introduced in Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s 1830 novel “Paul Clifford,” is now used stereotypically to introduce stories.
Question No. 2: Named for a mythical creature, this computer company dropped the first three letters of its name to appear higher in alphabetical listings.
Question No. 3: You might find this African nation, sandwiched between Benin and Ghana, on a menu.
These are three of Bill Patschak’s all-time favorite questions. His boss told him that No. 3 was, in fact, his best ever. And when you hear the answer — Togo (Get it? To go?) — it’s hard to disagree. That has to be one of the cleverest trivia questions ever. A real stumper, for sure.
Of course, some may think that No. 2 is a pretty tough nut to crack as well. The correct response? Asus, derived from the far more lyrical (and pronounceable) Pegasus. No. 1 is probably closest to a softball — lots of trivia nerds might recognize Bulwer-Lytton as the author who penned the now-cliched opener, “It was a dark and stormy night.”
But that’s the challenge for Patschak — finding the right combination of obscure-but-not-impossible factoid and wittily worded teaser. That’s because the 26-year-old from Frederick, Md., is a trivia writer, penning up to 50 puzzlers a week for a local trivia event producer. In the little over a year that he has been on the job, he has originated more than 1,000 mind-twisting questions.
That’s a lot of questions, but trivia nights are big business for bars and restaurants — and they’re busting out all over these days. In the District alone, Yelp lists 350 trivia night venues.
Somebody’s got to come up with the material for all those events. And make it tough. You want the kind of stuff that evokes the moans and groans you hear at any trivia night when a host throws out yet another picayune query you figure no one could possibly know the answer to — but someone usually does know the answer to.
So who are the evil geniuses behind these confounding brainteasers? And how do they come up with them?
Answer: A host of trivia-loving freelance writers, some of whom head their own contests, but many of whom labor in obscurity for companies large and small that specialize in running trivia events locally or nationwide. And, well, any way they can.
Patschak, who fell in love with trivia as a player, toils 20 hours a week dreaming up queries for Pour House Trivia, a Maryland outfit that runs events at 33 locations in the Washington and Baltimore areas. (He uses some of the material at the Thursday night contests he hosts at the seafood restaurant Fish Market in Old Town Alexandria.) His modus operandi: On Sundays, he hangs out with his girlfriend — whom he met at a trivia night, natch — until 10 p.m. Then he puts on some instrumental music — regular selections include Beethoven’s 6th (Pastoral) Symphony or the soundtracks to “The King’s Speech,” “K-PAX,” “A Single Man” or “The Painted Veil” — and writes questions until 2 a.m.
He gravitates toward well-known subjects that players may not know the background to — the inspirations for band names or the origins of company names, for instance. Like this query:
This convenience store used to be called Tote’m until it extended its daily hours to a 16-hour day and renamed itself to reflect that.
How many people know — or might guess — that it refers to 7-Eleven?
Or try this one:
The first six words of Hamlet’s soliloquy from Act III, Scene I, meet up with Mrs. Carter.
That’s one of trivia writer Leslie Elman’s proudest entries, although she protests that “honestly, questions are written in such volume that you can’t fall in love with any of them.” (Oh wait, you want the answer? “To be or not to Beyoncé,” of course.)
A New York-based freelance writer, Elman has written trivia books and is one of two women to write (“set”) questions for the World Quizzing Championships, which launched in 2003. (This year’s event, held June 6, drew 2,000 participants in 118 venues across 38 countries, says director Chris Jones.) She writes upward of 100 questions a week and has worked for a handful of trivia companies.
Typically, pub nights work in thematic rounds, but a writer’s challenge, says Elman, is to mix in some red herrings. For instance, a writer may decide to do a Greece theme “because Greece has been in the news,” she says. “But they may put a little twist on it, like call it ‘Greece’ and have it really be about grease, or about the movie musical.” A participant will wager points thinking that they know a lot about Greece, “and it turns out to be Olivia Newton-John.”
Oh, those tricky trivia writers. Always looking to trip up the poor players. Like Jared Stern, who composed this doozy:
Four colors in a box of 64 Crayola crayons have four-letter names. Name them.
You’re thinking maybe blue and, um, gold and . . . pink! And, uh, let’s see, one more — I know, aqua — or teal! Right? Wrong. The correct answer: blue, gray, gold and plum. Crayola’s pink is actually “carnation pink,” and aqua is “aquamarine.” It gets the players every time.
Stern is trivia czar at District Trivia, which runs 36 weekly competitions at 32 spots in the Washington area. He writes most of the 480 questions posed at District Trivia events and over the past four years has come up with more than 50,000. “It’s kind of a hard number to wrap your head around,” he says, “but it’s been spread out over a long period of time.”
Stern’s office at District Trivia is so packed with trivia books that it evokes the final scene in “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” he says — you know, the one with the huge, messy warehouse. A shelf that used to hold an encyclopedia of science and history actually broke beneath the weight of the books. “You know how they say a true sign of genius is how messy a person’s desk is?” he says. “If that’s true, I belong in Mensa.”
Stern devotes about half of his 9-to-5 workday to writing questions and generates 15 to 20 percent of them outside the office. Life, he notes, provides plenty of material. Like the time an Amtrak delay at Union Station gave him the chance to check out the ad posters all over the place and mine them for question fodder. “We call it falling down the rabbit hole,” he says of the query-generating process. “You find one little tidbit, which leads you to another tidbit, which leads you to something else.”
Ottawa-based writer Paul Paquet, who runs a Canadian trivia league of 200 teams and composes a Reader’s Digest trivia column, agrees. Writing trivia “changes the way you perceive the world,” which becomes “a massive possible trivia question,” he says. Anything can inspire an idea, he says, even the empty can of Peruvian Inca Kola and the toy okapi on his desk.
Paquet, who has contributed to an edition of Trivial Pursuit and who has a database of more than 100,000 questions, carries a notebook wherever he goes to jot down thoughts. If he can still read his handwriting six hours later, the idea becomes a query.
What he’s after with his questions, Paquet says, is to pose a challenge but also to entertain. “The objective is not necessarily to find out who the biggest nerd in the room is,” he says. “Although, I do find out who the biggest nerd in the room is.” The questions also need to be fun, or “a joke where you get to provide the punch line.”
And in case you were wondering, yes, sometimes he gets things wrong. Sometimes people contact him after a game to point out a mistake. “We’re human, so there are going to be slip-ups and errors here and there,” he says. But not often — most trivia writers are obsessive about doing their homework.
A bigger problem is the reality that sometimes the idea well — even if it encompasses the whole wide world — can run a little dry. The more questions he writes, the harder Stern finds it to come up with fresh content. “You want to make sure you don’t repeat yourself too many times,” he says.
That’s also been Liz Rosen’s experience writing questions and hosting at Jimmy’s Old Town Tavern in Herndon, Va. “There are weeks it’s a struggle” to dream up the 120 necessary queries, she says.
Question writing is decidedly tough, says Chris White, host and writer for D.C. Improv’s Happy Hour Trivia. “There’s a thought process in how you present the questions and what information you give away,” he says. “It’s not as simple as just going on Wikipedia and saying, ‘What can I steal from this entry?’ ”
Which brings us to the $64,000 question:
How much money does all this factoid-obsessed creativity actually earn its practitioners?
Alas, no one will divulge the answer, although $1 per query is a figure that’s often bandied about. Let’s just say that it is in fact possible to make a living at this oddball occupation.
“It surprised my parents when I told them what I was going to be doing,” says Stern. His full-time trivia-writing job offers benefits and earns him enough to pay his mortgage. “I’ve been able to lead the lifestyle to which I’ve been accustomed.”
As for Patschak, “It’s not good money, but I can live on it,” he says. “I’m poor, and I work 20 hours a week. But I’m happy.”
And who can question that?
Wecker is a freelance writer in Washington.