Listen With Others

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Listener No 4717, Unruly Characters: A Setter’s Blog by Somniloquist

Posted by Listen With Others on 18 Aug 2022

After literary subjects in my two previous Listeners (The Green Knight and Albert Angelo), I was intent on coming up with something different for the third. After a few weeks of dead-ends and impossible ideas, I decided it was easier to rely on others’ creativity than my own, specifically Flann O’Brien’s. Two of his novels stood out as possible themes: The Third Policeman and At Swim-Two-Birds. I failed to turn the former’s footnotes from a fictional science book and policemen gradually morphing into the bicycles they ride into a coherent theme, so I settled on ASTB, which included a lot of potential source material.

I wanted to tell the story chronologically, rather than just include thematic words, which meant, broadly: the three characters and their openings, meeting at The Red Swan Hotel, their ultimate demise and the author’s escape. The characters turning against their author led me to unruly characters and the idea that “characters” could move between clues and entries, something I’d not seen before (possibly because it makes the clues extremely difficult). As this approach often did not produce real words in the grid, I hit upon changing letters to make real words to reveal the characters leading to the hotel – although this made constructing the grid a challenge. As a (possibly too subtle) hint to the solver, the characters started at the end of three words that mean “opening”: start, gap and proem. I would have preferred three different senses of the word (start, gap and job, say) and to avoid an obscure word like proem, but neither I nor the crossword software could make that work.

The Red Swan Hotel could be written in a convenient square in the centre of the grid, with each character entering or touching it. Then I “simply” had to work out how to get the solver to represent the characters within that square being destroyed “as the paper that sustains them is burnt”. The wording for this changed at every stage in test solving and vetting and it still seems it was a little too ambiguous as published, judging by the feedback. My original intention was that the characters were simply deleted, but that evolved into a more literal graphical depiction of their fate. Both it seems were impossible to express in a way that didn’t give too much away but provided a single unambiguous instruction.

The final step was fitting in an escaping Dermot Trellis, the characters’ author, into the grid. This was only feasible as DER was already there from Red Swan and, by chance, I could trace his name to the edge by changing seven letters – and there were seven remaining untreated clues. Given these changes didn’t produce real words (an unfortunate inconsistency), it needed more of a hint to the solver, hence using the start and end of extra words to indicate what should be changed.

In the midst of setting, it’s hard to judge how difficult a crossword will be to solve. Probably I could have foreseen that a fiendish clue treatment followed by a complex multi-stage endgame on an obscure subject would be on the trickier end. I hope it still proved enjoyable for most. Lessons learned for my next definitely non-literary effort…

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