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Archive for the ‘Setting Blogs’ Category

Listener 4674, Elusive Figures: A Setter’s Blog by Poat

Posted by Listen With Others on 19 Sep 2021

Like a lot of my puzzle ideas (and I do have more up my sleeve), Elusive Figures had a long gestation. It probably arose well before this 2015 Times article discussing Penrose’s relationship with Escher:

I was further prompted by Escher exhibitions in both Lisbon, which I visited in 2018 for Eurovision, and a few months later in my home town Melbourne (this one jointly with design company Nendo, but featuring many of the same pieces). A puzzle using Escher-like Penrose tiling is likely infeasible – unless you know different – but I could conceive of one based on the Penrose triangle aka tribar. Research showed that Oscar Reutersvärd had devised it independently, and fortuitously all three surnames would fit neatly around the 24-cell boundary of such a structure. To avoid the obvious, it made sense to extend into a parallelogram requiring three sections to be deleted, though this would be an unusually large grid (and I prudently checked with the editors before going too deep). Initially I wanted to involve Escher’s Relativity as well, his famous depiction of staircases traversed by humanoids with at least six perspectives, but ultimately only the entry method for answers was a nod to that.

Now it was a case of (1) filling the grid around the set parameters, and (2) writing the clues, ensuring a suitable message could be accommodated in a thematic way, i.e. by using those with triangular numbers. I also decided to exploit the diacritic marks (not technically an umlaut in Swedish) to signal one area for removal. The starting point was a couple of interlocking words containing Ä, but otherwise I needed much intricate trial and error before achieving a happy result. As for the clues, generally a slow process, other setters might be interested to know what I consult for inspiration:

  • Chambers phone app for close perusal of the definitions (alas my copy of the desktop software with its reverse lookup functionality is no longer working)
  • Bradford’s – my sole surviving physical resource, useful for finding surprising synonyms
  • for various addition, subtraction, substitution or composite clue types
  • The word wizard within Sympathy crossword-setting software (trial version available at
  • The extensive word-finding and manipulation tool Tea, bundled with Sympathy
  • – a comprehensive list of synonyms and nuances
  • – if I’m really stuck, I turn to this database of past clues from major US puzzles (often good for a nicely misleading turn of phrase) and some UK or Irish dailies (though the Irish Times clues can be hilariously unsound or full of surreal crosswordese). I get some nuggets here while always careful to avoid plagiarism, or can see what treatments should be avoided due to overuse.

I’ll also highlight as a resource that’s worth checking before you get too far into crafting a puzzle, the very useful tough cryptics database courtesy of Dave Hennings.

Final thanks to my original test solvers (Wan and Shark) who kindly pointed out what didn’t work and why, and to the Listener editors, all of whom improved the puzzle hugely. And here’s a depiction of some impossible dachshunds and their toys:

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Listener No 4673, Chessboard Carte Blanche: A Setter’s Blog by Hedgehog

Posted by Listen With Others on 12 Sep 2021

I always enjoy exploring number patterns and relationships and also challenging myself to set a puzzle with a new twist or idea. This pair of puzzles fulfilled both so was a pleasure to set.

The first puzzle, Chessboard, was a “normal” crossword and appeared in Crossnumbers Quarterly last year and involved squares and cubes. After I had set it, I thought whether there any more mileage in the chessboard idea as 8×8 is a very convenient size of grid.

A carte blanche crossword came to mind quickly but I spent some time thinking over the options. Time spent here can avoid wasting a lot of time later. A carte blanche involves a fair amount of cold solving but the jigsaw element is easier to do with 26 letters than with 10 numbers. I was not attempting to replicate a word carte blanche but wanted to make sure there was a challenge in both the cold solving and the jigsaw. To do a puzzle where the jigsaw element could start early would probably require some 8-digit answers and maybe some other 6 or longer entries that could be cold solved. This looked a bit daunting so I settled on a grid with shorter length entries with the expectation that solvers would be able to cold solve most but not all the clues. My first (and final) grid had 1 across starting in the second square and containing two unchecked cells as I wanted to make the jigsaw part more of a challenge and I was already planning that it would be a clue that could not be cold solved. The grid fill started with the Fibonacci number and the cube with 729+729=1458 as I felt it was important to give solvers a good start. My grid fill then followed the solution path until I had a few clues left that needed feedback from the grid. My final act was to put in the preamble that bars need not be entered as one of my pet hates is the unnecessary entry of bars in puzzles.

When I submitted the puzzle, I was reasonably happy except that the “crossword” element of the puzzle only came in when solving the last few clues. This was noted by Roger but he was happy to publish it with a few improvements to my preamble. One or two solvers also commented on this but I was pleased that so many enjoyed the puzzle. I’d like to thanks all the solvers that took the time to comment.

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Listener No 4672, Form..ation: A Setter’s Blog by Mr E

Posted by Listen With Others on 5 Sep 2021

I first thought of the line “The [conson]ants go marching” many years ago; no memory of how I came to it.  For a long time I was considering a parade route in the grid, going back and forth row by row; but that never led to anything that felt worth doing.  Then finally the idea of five sets of four consonants occurred to me; putting such sets in rows or columns did not seem likely to work, but diagonally – they fit nicely into a 12 x 12 grid, and I went to work.

I like to use only 36 entries in a 12×12, and this conveniently was just enough to accommodate the line and the CONSON.

I thought it would be easiest to fill such a grid if as many as possible of the 20 consonant cells were unchecked.  I believe I found an old Mephisto grid that had 10 of the 20 unchecked, and with some modification I got it up to 12.  It was still more difficult to fill than most of my previous puzzle grids – I don’t do programming, I use Word Matcher and go word by word.

Nothing special to say about the clueing — I took my usual time and eventually got to where I felt good about it.  The editors needed a few changes as usual.

My original title as submitted was “Boom!”; I also considered something like “Rainy Day Activity”.  The actual title “Form..ation” was a creation of the editors, who felt that a possible hint that ants were involved [formication] would be good.  I did not realize that solvers might be unfamiliar with the song!  It seems like every time I have wondered in the past if UK solvers would be familiar with some American idea, there has been no problem.  My knowledge of the song must be from childhood — and I see references to it on the internet mentioning the 1950’s and as far back as 1946.  Certainly before the more recent animated versions which some of you found on the net.

I have received the batch of comments sent by solvers – Thank you all!  

That’s about it.

Mr E (Mark Oshin [Portland OR USA])

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Listener No 4671, Ours: A Setter’s Blog by Xanthippe

Posted by Listen With Others on 29 Aug 2021

Helen and I have on occasion completed the concise puzzle, originally in The Independent, now in the i. In these puzzles,` the entries on the top line read together give another word or phrase. This seemed like an idea for a cryptic but remained dormant until a particular literary quiz in The Times. This had a question regarding The Listeners and Walter de la Mare. On looking up The Listeners I discovered James Gunn had a work of the same name and decided to include both writers.

Early on I decided all the across rows should have the gimmick and settled on DLM clues for brevity. Initially I looked at normal down answers but this proved too difficult for me. Jumbled answers gave me sufficient freedom to get a complete grid – I’m not keen on jumbles particularly as the solver gets the answer but can’t enter any letters. This was ameliorated, somewhat, by giving solvers the first and last entry letters.

I had some reservations that DLM and jumbles were not thematic but figured these have appeared many times in The Listeners over the years! On submitting the puzzle I knew the homophone nature was a risk. Indeed one was not accurate enough – thanks to Roger for his rework and as ever to him and Shane for their improvements to the puzzle.

With the gimmicks in this puzzle I wasn’t sure how it would be received but was pleased to read on the boards that solvers largely enjoyed it.

Xanthippe 13/08/21

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Listener No 4669, Clothes-line: A Setter’s Blog by The Ace of Hearts

Posted by Listen With Others on 16 Aug 2021

I was looking for something round to build a circular crossword grid and decided to try “Circus”. The exact definition in Chambers for circus “A circular or oval building for public entertainments” is 46 letters long, which means 46 radial clues + some perimeter and circular clues. While this could be done, experience has taught me that there would not be enough space to accommodate the entire puzzle in the paper (mainly because circular grids take up more space than rectangular ones). So I decided to drop the initial “A”, and “or oval” and the final “s” in entertainments to leave a 38 letter definition, which I knew would be more manageable.

I then began searching for “circus” quotations on the internet that had 38 letters and sure enough “clowns are the pegs on which the circus is hung” appeared. It seemed logical then to have one circular ring with the quotation and another with synonyms of clowns.

Next step was to open “Qxw”, the (free) and very powerful crossword construction program. So I (Qxw) created the 38 radial grid and filled in the third ring with the quotation and got a list of clown synonyms ready to place in the perimeter ring. I also clicked the “override” default radial lights buttons to allow lights to be entered forward, reversed and encyclical and with the “letters latent” gimmick (my favourite) wordplay allowed. (The editors have since advised me that this gimmick is now played out and for me to try something new). After a bit of trial and error juggling with clown synonyms, I soon had a full grid. Because it didn’t take long to fill the grid, I thought I might start again and this time get “Barnum” to appear somewhere into the grid, so I saved the original filled grid and started again. This was a bit trickier and required more trial and error, but the powerful program still managed to give me a full grid and enough choice of words to enter that were reasonably common and readily “ clueable”.

And so to the clues. I knew with the “letters latent” gimmick that the editors didn’t allow any “link” words in the clues (which did make the clueing a bit harder) but I did put a lot of effort into this, and although Shane and Roger (the editors) still had to make a lot of tweaks to the clues, this was still an improvement on my previous clueing efforts.

So thanks to the editors for bearing with me and ensuring that solvers have a puzzle that they know that the clues are all above board and grammatically correct.

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