Listen With Others

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Listener 4109, Not a Black and White Decision: A Setter’s Blog by Brock

Posted by Listen With Others on 21 November 2010

I have set 15 by 15 puzzles as Brock for a good number of years, on a few occasions for the chapel magazine at my college about 20 years ago, and more recently from time to time for our village magazine (Yarnton). It was in that context that the inspiration for this puzzle originated.

While driving and walking past fields in our village that have been allocated for a number of years for redevelopment, being just outside the green belt, it occurred to me that a puzzle based on HORSES (the inhabitants of the fields at the time) and HOUSES (the proposed inhabitants) would be a neat idea. The subject was quite controversial within the village, with the pristine fields earmarked for an estate which would swell the village population by over 10%. So my original idea was to have two conventional cryptic crosswords with the same grid, the one solution differing by one letter resolving which grid the other entries were to go in. I intended to set this for the village magazine. These Empty Fields puzzles were partly gridded up in January 2006, but never saw the light of day, since I decided the concept was a little too hard for the readership.

Fast-forward to April 2008. An amazing time for me for inspiration. I had just had an almost complete (monthly Azed comp was the exception) break from crosswords for a few months, and it seemed that my brain worked overtime when I returned to them. I filled a loose leaf notebook with ideas for barred puzzles within a matter of a few weeks. One of the better ideas was NABAWD. My very first notes, written in a hurry after arriving back from the 10-minute walk from work past the aforementioned fields, state:

“NOT A BLACK AND WHITE DECISION. Left and right puzzle. Based on ‘Empty Fields’ idea. Top across answer STABLEBLOCKS. In left HO[R]SES, right HO[U]SES. Clashing letters in across & down clues lead to GREEN FIELD SITES on left and BROWN FIELD SITES on right. One of the clues on one side => BEDSIT with BE changed to EL in clashes.”

Not bad for a 10-minute walk, I think you’ll agree! One issue was how to handle clashes in a left and right puzzle. The extra ambiguity would probably make it too hard for the solver. Hence I decided that the clashing letters should match each side, making the initial grid fill easier, but inevitably leading to a controversial ‘two-part’ puzzle. Another difficulty was coming up with a grid-fill that had sufficient average word length and was not effectively split into two vertically as well as horizontally. But within a week I had almost got the final grid (grid scheme 4), and was considering whether to do something with the letters ‘discarded’ from the clashes. In the end I decided against that.

I was surprised to discover that STABLE BLOCKS was not in Chambers. For a while this led me to look at alternative possibilities (e.g. using BREEZE BLOCKS, with breeze3 in Chambers providing the thematic link to horses), saved as grid scheme 5. In my view this severely weakened the thematic idea, though, so after wasting some time seeking alternative grid fills I returned to the original and finished the grid fill using ELDEST and ECOLOGIC, which I called grid fill 4a.

A few people have expressed disappointment about the “one exception” to the clashes (C/T for ECOLOGIC/SYLLABIC and BEDSIT/ELDEST. I did try to find a grid fill which allowed for this to follow the same rules, but it quickly became obvious that the need for the B and G to be unchecked restricted my options to the point where I could not find a grid fill that did not effectively split the puzzle across the middle horizontally. If I had thrown away the idea of BEDSIT, I might have been able to do something with the B and G positioned differently in the grid, but finding suitable words with a reasonable number of the relevant letters from the phrases was a challenge in itself. So I stuck with BEDSIT/ELDEST, which also allowed me to keep the thematic ECOLOGIC (green field side) and TESSERAE (under BLOCKS). I also tried to find other possibilities which avoided the use of PFUI, which is only in Chambers in the etymologies of related words. Once I’d faced up to the fact I would have to use it, I deliberately paired it with ECHT, considering that I might write a clue in German! One additional feature was including my initials, which is something I intend to try to do with every barred puzzle I set.

As I mentioned above, this was a period of intense activity for me in terms of setting ideas. After less than 3 weeks, I put this puzzle down and started on several other ideas. One of these others formed my debut submission to The Listener in September 2008, but after over 18 months of waiting, it was rejected. It was not until January 2009 that I picked NABAWD up again to work on the clues.

January 2009 was another fairly intense time for other interesting puzzle ideas, but with the village building plans progressing fast at this time I wanted to get this puzzle moving as well. So I sat down to work on the clues, one or two each available evening, until in March I was able to send a draft puzzle to my two test solvers. As the summer started, it was time to act on my test solvers comments. The fact that the building work for the new estate had started meant that the constant noise of trees being pulled down, ground dug up, etc acted as an incessant nag for me to finally complete and submit puzzle. Double clues like this are not easy, and my respect for setters using this device increased a lot during this whole period!

To me, the clues are the single most important part of any crossword puzzle, and so I took care to make the surface readings reasonable, with an interesting mix of different clue devices. In addition, for the left/right puzzle type I had been advised that one of the keys is to hide the division between the two halves, so (with a few exceptions) I made this a priority. One of the exceptions was PFUI/ECHT, which I wanted to make easy because PFUI is not a head word in Chambers. For a few of the pairs, disguising the divisions was easy – e.g. for LESS/FUSS, “not so much trouble” jumps out.

Two other specific things I would like to mention about the clues. One concerns 1A “Rip up stalks and cobble where animals used to be kept” for STABLE BLOCKS. This was a very emotive clue, summarising the whole motivation and inspiration behind the puzzle. Following the advice in Don Manley’s Crossword Manual, I wanted a very simple clue, and I liked the idea that Phi used in his late 2007 Listener puzzle Disappearance relating the clue to the theme. The other is that I deliberately included colour pairs in some of the clues. The relevant colours were silver/greenish-blue (9A, HAG/EEN), scarlet-red/black (19A, CLEATS/ANANAS) and green/orange (5D, ECOLOGIC). This was a subtle, I suspect too subtle, additional hint to what was needed, although I guess if too much were read into it, it would serve as a red herring.

Thank you to those who expressed appreciation for the puzzle; sorry to those who found it less than satisfactory. Maybe it was appropriate, given the theme, that it polarised views, but it was my intention to amuse rather than abuse solvers. If you had trouble with the puzzle, please just spare a thought for my long-suffering test solvers, who had to struggle with a far less directive preamble!

Brock

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