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Listener 4182, Breach of Contract: A Setter’s Blog by Ron

Posted by Listen With Others on 14 April 2012

It seems the jury is currently out as to whether a setter’s blog gives an interesting insight into the mind of the setter or is the crossword equivalent of whisking the screen away from the Wizard of Oz. While I’m undecided on the wider debate, I decided that the thoughts of a débutant setter may be of interest to potential setters who haven’t yet made the leap. If that’s not you, then please don’t feel the need to read any further.

I first set my mind to compiling a themed crossword about six years ago. It was called “Agenda Items or ______” and was based on the Walrus and the Carpenter. It had various examples of shoes, ships, sealing wax, cabbages and kings (with cole doing double duty) each of which was undefined and to be located in the final grid. Solvers had to locate an ironic description of the oysters, which could be used as an alternative title (“Pearls of Wisdom”). If I’m honest, once I’d thought of the oyster pun I couldn’t not write the crossword.

A number of years later I started to think seriously about trying to get a crossword published and my first thought was to dust off my “Agenda Items”. However a quick search on the Listener Crossword website revealed that an almost identical crossword had been printed in 2000 (right down to the references to “global warming” and “pigs might fly”). This forced me to start thinking afresh; while the W&C theme was fun, the themed crosswords I enjoy solving most aren’t the ones that simply require you to decode an interesting quotation or locate a string of relevant words ‘wordsearch style’, but where something relevant and thematic actually happens in the grid. I spent many weeks trying to come up with possible themes that would do this and finally came up with the idea for “Breach of Contract”; having the Pied Piper lure a line of children from their houses (clue answers) and lead them snaking them through the city of Hamelin and out of the city gates.

I worked out that a 12×12 grid with three lines of names was probably the maximum I could manage and still have a full set of down clues without any unchecked letters at the bottom (an important restriction for me given the lack of Germanic names in the back of Chambers). I trawled the internet for lists of suitable German names, narrowed them down to a shortlist that could be removed from longer words (highlighting any, like Eva or Otto, that provided numerous possibilities) and then experimented with putting them in various combinations so that I had workable word endings for down clues. Not much to say about the rest of the grid fill other than to say that it was a long and arduous process.

I liked the idea of having two different types of clues. The first would give the name of the protagonist (I’d already decided to use “Der Rattenfänger von Hameln” which provided a workable number of down clues and, being in the German language, would hopefully stay hidden for long enough). The second would use additional words in clues to provide a description of what was happening. I trawled through Goethe, Grimm and Browning for a helpful quotation that would explain all, but came up short. The ODQ gave the following from Browning, which is wonderful; while of no use to me, I’m sure there’s another crossword in there:

“Rats!
They fought the dogs and killed the cats,
And bit the babies in the cradles,
And ate the cheeses out of the vats,
And licked the soup from the cooks’ own ladles,
Split open the kegs of salted sprats,
Made nests inside men’s Sunday hats,
And even spoiled the women’s chats
By drowning their speaking
With shrieking and squeaking
In fifty different sharps and flats.”

I gave up on quotations and settled on a self-composed message, reverting to Wikipedia and Brewers for inspiration. Brewers mentions versions of the story where the children wind up in Transylvania and form a new colony. Focusing on this aspect, I settled on “Kinder leave homes following entertainer to Transylvanian colonisation”. In order to help hide the Transylvanian, I disguised that part as “tot ran sylvan Ian”.

Given this was my first attempt, I asked a whole variety of people to test solve it, including someone who had never solved a barred crossword before and a seasoned Listener setter (a friend of a friend – it really is a small world). All of their feedback was invaluable, but most importantly persuaded me to re-think my use of Transylvania. Solvers were supposed to write the destination “Transylvania” under the grid, but it really wasn’t clear enough to be wholly unambiguous and that was a real problem. I toyed with variations – looking at options involving Koppelberg Hill/Koppenberg Mountain – but it was tough to hide them in a way that wouldn’t have given the game away too quickly. However, a number of my guinea-pigs had said that they had enjoyed the “tot ran sylvan Ian” and so I set about trying to make the whole message work in that way – I ended up with “Kind era ban don dig spur suing per former”, which is very nearly how it ended up in the final puzzle (a last minute comment moved me to swap “dig” for “home” – slightly less cryptic but definitely less forced).

I sent the crossword to be vetted – but then a bombshell! One of the vetters reported that there had been another Pied Piper crossword as recently as 2009. So recently, in fact, that the spreadsheet on the Listener website hadn’t been updated to include it. It felt like the Walrus and the Carpenter all over again and I was worried that all my hard work would all be for naught. Luckily the vetters were comfortable that Breach of Contract was sufficiently different to Motley Collection; Merlin’s offering was heavily rat-based and thankfully there’s not a sniff of vermin in mine.

And so probably the most important lesson of the many I learnt in the whole process is that if you want to be as sure as you can be that your idea is original, then look at the Listener website (with its searchable spreadsheet explaining themes for every puzzle since the year dot), but then double-check it against Dave Hennings’ database, which has detailed information on more recent Listeners (as I discovered too late) as well as Magpie, EV and Inquisitor puzzles – an invaluable resource.

Ron.

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2 Responses to “Listener 4182, Breach of Contract: A Setter’s Blog by Ron”

  1. Hello

    Thanks for the blog and the crossword, I really enjoyed it — possibly my favourite of the year so far (the crossword that is).

  2. Haha shortly after the very enjoyable penny-drop (“diacritic” helped) I said to myself SURELY there’s been a Pied Piper theme before… I solved that one but even so couldn’t bring it to mind. A cracking puzzle. More please!

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