4061: 50-50, a Setter’s Blog by Phi
Posted by phiology on 12 December 2009
I suppose the seed for this one goes back to a couple of Christmases ago when I spent a fair bit of time cataloguing my puzzles. The following year I created a notebook consisting solely of the solution grids to my Listener puzzles, accompanied by handwritten comments (this blogging thing will never catch on, you know…). I’ll be adding 50-50 to it once I see the comments forwarded by John Green.
Between them, those actions threw up the fact that Disorders would be my 49th Listener puzzle (some of them were collaborations, which leaves me with the option of a 50th Phi puzzle, I guess). And with my turning 50 in July 2009, it suddenly seemed a good idea to try and get the next puzzle in before the end of the year.
A double 50. Or 50-50. And that happened to be the title of a puzzle rejected very early on in my career – it would be nice to get a puzzle with that title in eventually. 50-50 led to the idea of a double L, and then a little bit of playing around with grid sizes to see how big each L could be – I didn’t want lots of short words, so there was a minimum size for each L.
Next, the thematic element. Other 50-year-olds were an obvious target. I thought first of others born in the same month as me (July 1959) – that would have given me composer James MacMillan and pianist Joanna MacGregor (born the same day, as it happens) and Andrew Marr the journalist. But they wouldn’t really fit together in the Ls, and it was also clear that I wouldn’t get the puzzle published in July(too soon after Disorders), so it was off to Wikipedia and ‘1959 births’.
I selected several names I knew, and was pleased to see that two of them were of the same length and could form the backbone of the big L. A little tinkering with the third name allowed me to slot it into the smaller L. Since there wasn’t any other restriction on choice of words, the grid could now be completed. Wonderfully, the unchecked letters could be formed into a single word, and while GERUND was not specifically linked to the theme, it was still an encouragingly fortuitous circumstance. I realised that anything to do with living people was likely to cause some claims of ‘Unfamiliar!’, but that seemed a bit unavoidable with a puzzle based on 50th birthdays. Each name chosen was a significant figure in his/her realm of popular culture, but, as I’ve often noted, popular culture is now so large and fragmented that very few bits of it are truly popular.
Now the thematic clue element. Something that linked the two Ls seemed a good bet, and I cast my eye over the word lengths, at which point the ‘Wrong Number’ style of idea came to mind. The unusual shape and symmetry of the grid could be a problem, so something that enabled you to partition answers might not be a bad idea. Pairing the answers so that X+Y was matched to Y+X might also give solvers a way to sort out what otherwise could be difficult clues. (I was slightly concerned to find that those clues came very easily, which I always take as a bad sign – what’s easy for the setter is generally hard for the solver.)
And then finally, before finishing the clues, another glance at the 50-year-olds. I’d chosen them because they were all musicians. The two women were clearly singers; N’Dour sings and plays instruments (and acts, which is the field in which I’ve seen him), but SINGER seemed a good common definition, and neatly there were six six-letter answers in the big L, but none in the smaller. So that was a way to give an extra hint, that wouldn’t leap out from a casual inspection of the clues.
That all looks very smooth, and in fact it was – everything just seemed to slot together neatly in a very pleasing sequence of serendipity. Ultimately I was after setting a reasonably hard puzzle (in general, I think most Listener regulars find my puzzles at the easy end of the spectrum, so there was no harm in giving their expectations a jangle), but one that was hard all the way through, and without recourse to spotting hidden messages, or guessing at cryptic interpretations. The thematic elements may have been slightly out-of-the-way for some (most?), but the research facilities on the Web are easily equal to that task, and I think it not unreasonable to assume most solvers have access (and you got SINGER and GERUND as hints). I find myself slightly taken aback by one setter (who otherwise enjoyed the puzzle) baulking at using Google, saying that he preferred that thematic material should be available on his bookshelf. But why is consulting your own book any different from consulting reference material in another form?