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Generalisation by Samuel – Setter’s Blog

Posted by clanca1234 on 15 February 2014

In my experience, inspiration for a thematic puzzle comes at any time and in any place (and often on any subject). When it comes, it can take one of two forms – either a vague idea which needs considerable forethought and planning as the initial idea gets expanded upon and grows, or a fully-formed idea which comes in an instant, and is immediately ready to set. Generalisation was that rare beast – a puzzle that fell into the second category.

At some point in my increasingly dim and distant childhood, I learned to draw a very rough map of Britain using only a few straight lines, as follows:





One day, I was sitting at my desk writing clues for another puzzle, glanced down at the pad by my laptop, and saw that I had, without thinking drawn such a map on the top sheet of paper – a piece of paper on which I had written down shops to go to on a trip into Northallerton that afternoon. By pure coincidence, the piece of paper looked like this:


On seeing this, a voice in my head said “Nation of Shopkeepers”, and the puzzle was born.

My first stumbling block was whether it would be possible to produce a grid (it would have to be a carte blanche) which looked like a convincing map of England, Scotland and Wales at such low resolution. It would have to be a carte blance with cells blocked out to represent the sea, I thought, and immediately reached for the Times Concise Atlas (a sweetener from The Times when there were issues with the online Times Crossword Club membership a few years ago). I found a ruler, took measurements of the relative sizes of the height of the country and the width across the Midlands, then set to work.

My initial attempt involved a very large 15×18 grid, as follows:



This wasn’t satisfactory for several reasons, mainly because after brief correspondence with one of the Listener editors, I realised that the grid was too large and would need to be cut down. In addition, we had shopkeepers in Scotland and Wales – the intention being at this point that solvers would perhaps amend unchecked letters in each of BARBER and GROCER to ensure the final grid was a true representation of the theme (eg BARBER to BARKER, and GROCER to…. well, nothing fitted for this, but it could have been accomplished with some small grid changes).

As a result, a smaller grid was needed. The precise shape of Wales, East Anglia and Kent took some playing with, but the end result after several weeks of playing about was the same shape as the final puzzle. This had a two letter entry in Cornwall which wasn’t ideal, but seemed to work well other than that.

Now that I had a fill and a reasonably shaped map (done manually, not with Sympathy), then it was time to consider the rest of the puzzle. The title was originally ‘Cliche’, but got amended to Generalisation when I realised the dual reference of this word to General Napoleon and the sweeping generalisation inherent in the relevant quotation.

It was obvious that part of the quotation would need to be given by a clueing gimmick, and at an early stage I decided to opt for the French version as a possible means of disguising the theme for longer. I was only too aware that if a solver realised the theme very early, then the rest of the solve might be a long, hard slog. Besides, Napoleon would have uttered these words in French (if indeed he did speak them), so this seemed historically accurate. The same reasoning led to the French/English translation for the shopkeepers. I also toyed with having the shopkeepers unclued, but this seemed as it might make the puzzle even harder than it already was. Answer lengths were omitted so as to hopefully disguise the final shape of the grid for longer… and the first versions of the puzzle had solvers shading blank cells in an appropriate colour to represent the sea (as in the above grid).

Clue-writing took four or five weeks on and off, and then the puzzle was test-solved by two fellow Listener setters, both of whom suggested excellent improvements (and one of whom, being an expert linguist, confirmed the French/English translations). There were further small changes during the editorial process, including a change to the grid to improve unching, and then the puzzle was ready to go.

Thanks to all those who have commented so generously on the puzzle – it is greatly appreciated. It is perhaps ironic that the puzzle has appeared at a time when high streets up and down the country are struggling, and the number of shopkeepers is greatly reduced over what it was even a few years ago. Hopefully there will be a resurgence, and Napoleon’s words can once again ring true.

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