Listener No 4427, Shut That Door!: A Setter’s Blog by Bandmaster
Posted by Listen With Others on 25 December 2016
My wife’s love of advent calendars supplied the inspiration for this puzzle – not advent calendars with sweets or gifts but the traditional paper calendars with drawings behind each window. It struck me as serendipitous that the large double windows opened on Christmas Eve (and thus marked “24”) coincided with the placing of X (for Xmas) in the alphabet. I was unaware that some modern advent calendars run all the way to Christmas Day itself – I still think that is the exception rather than the rule.
I then wondered if it was possible to construct a carte blanche where the only marked items in the presented grid were the window numbers, requiring solvers to draw something appropriate (e.g. Xmas tree) in the window marked 24. This could have been done with the grid eventually used, but there was no satisfactory way of doing this without making the theme too obvious from the start.
At this point I decided to present the puzzle the other way round by asking solvers to substitute numbers for the objects drawn in the advent calendar – and that led to the thought that each object could begin with a different letter of the alphabet to generate the 23 numbered windows of an unopened advent calendar.
Having got that far, I spent some time trying to generate a list of suitable objects (i.e. those with a Christmassy feel and yet part of longer words), with K, M, Q, U and V all presenting some issues. Myrrh was the obvious M, but did not fit into longer words, and I didn’t want to use Mary because I needed Virgin for V. That left Magi, which meant I shouldn’t use K for King, but in the end I had to concede on this point despite the inelegance. For the intractable Q and U I decided to use Quince and Urn – not ideal but not completely inappropriate either. Some letters offered lots of possibilities, so I armed myself with a list of candidates and started the grid fill.
If the two central squares were to be the double doors, to be marked 24 as the final step by solvers, then a symmetrical grid (absolutely required for a carte blanche style of puzzle) dictated that the number of rows was odd but the number of columns even. Given the need to incorporate 23 “special” squares, I thought the grid would have to be at least 13×14, giving just less than 2 specials per row and column.
I started by placing the most intractable entries (i.e. the ones for which there was little choice, such as the pair of JOSEPHs and the pair of QUINCEs) and slowly and methodically worked through the permutations. It took almost a year (!) to arrive at the final grid – at one point I wondered whether it was possible at all, but the discovery of VIRGIN GOLD made a huge difference, squeezing two specials into one corner and taking a surprising amount of pressure off the remainder of the grid.
With the grid finally completed, it was time to turn to the clues. In several other puzzles I have used the device of signalling normal entries with abnormal clues and leaving normal clues for abnormal entries. I decided to use that again, and quickly found a suitable phrase of the right length of letters to be indicated by the initial letters of redundant words.
The clueing was the usual process of finding a good idea and then polishing, polishing, polishing……while also checking that the same clue type wasn’t used too frequently or in too many successive clues. I then (as is my habit) put the puzzle away in a drawer for four months before coming back to it relatively cold for a fresh look. At that point I felt brave enough to submit it for publication.
The admirable editors of the crossword made a number of really good suggestions for improving the preamble and clues – my thanks to them and also to the tireless John Green who vets all the answers and keeps the statistics. We owe all of them a debt of gratitude, as we do to those who maintain the LWO site on which you are reading this blog.
A merry Christmas to all and a happy and peaceful New Year, too