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Archive for the ‘Setting Blogs’ Category

Listener No 4557, Choice Words: A Setter’s Blog from Serpent

Posted by Listen With Others on 24 June 2019

I started setting barred puzzles almost five years ago. My third attempt was based on the phrases THERE IS NO ALTERNATIVE and MARGARET THATCHER. Having learned a lot in the intervening years, I decided to revisit the theme.

I thought it would be interesting (and thematically appropriate) to construct the two thematic phrases from fragments obtained from words of the form AorB, with the requirement that removal of “or” and the fragment left a real word that would be used in either a grid entry or a clue. This posed some pretty tight constraints on across entries (not least because I wanted the affected entries to appear symmetrically in the grid) and down clues. As always, Qxw was equal to the challenge of finding a grid-fill.

Writing the clues for the across entries was straightforward – they were normal clues after all. Writing the clues for down entries was obviously more challenging. I started by partitioning MARGARET THATCHER into fragments that looked as though they would appear adjacent to “or” in a reasonable number of words or in a specific word that seemed useful and used up a few letters (such as GRECo-rOMAN). I then used Qat – another indispensible setter’s tool developed by Quinapalus – to find candidate words of the form AorB, being particularly interested in words that could be used as wordplay indicators (such as HorACE for A).

My efforts to retain good surfaces in the presence of a fairly demanding clue gimmick meant a few clues needing some editorial tweaking, but I’m pleased to say most of the basic ideas survived intact. Thanks, as always, are due to Roger and Shane for their efforts and the many improvements they made to the puzzle before publication.


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Listener No 4556, Ambidexter: A Setter’s Blog by Opsimath

Posted by Listen With Others on 19 June 2019

Back last October, I felt it was time to find a new theme for a crossword, so I turned over in bed and reached for my old ODQ, given by my brother to our father 50 years ago (at Uludağ, a chauffeur-driven ride from Istanbul, where we were spending the Christmas week). This is rather a dated edition, and I dislike many of the entries now, but flipping through the pages the phrase “I stood in Venice, on the Bridge of Sighs” caught my eye. BRIDGEOFSIGHS is 13 letters, which I’m always on the look-out for, and I was thrilled to see the symmetry of “… PALACE and PRISON on each hand”.

I struggled a bit to find a suitable grid-fill, trying different shapes for the bridge, but with a little help from a friend (thanks, Shirley!) a respectable grid fell into shape.

Obviously, “palace” and “prison” had to be on opposite ends of the bridge, but that created difficulty with a symmetrical fill, and I soon realised that having the prison below the level of the palace was more logical anyway. The condemned were not just led across the bridge sighing, they were then presumably taken down to the cells.

Meanwhile, I needed a hidden message. “ISTOODINVENICE” rang nicely, and I just needed to suggest the author. Rather than Lord Byron, I rather liked GGBYRON which I hoped might cause a little confusion, recognising that whatever I did, many of the old hands would be complaining that the puzzle was too easy.

I thought the puzzle needed a little more than just highlighting BRIDGEOFSIGHS, so I wondered what was the name of the canal beneath. Of course I’d been to Venice 60 years ago, and had my first pizza at Harry’s Bar (pizza in Rome at that time was still mostly plain pitta bread dressed with oil and salt) – and recalled the name of the canal, Rio di Palazzo. [ahem! The internet may have helped at that point, tbh.]

I was also reminded of a story my mother often recounted: my parents were on their way to Venice by sleeper train (she was due to launch an oil tanker there, as one does). Leaving my father in their compartment to dress for dinner she explored the train, reserved a spot in the dining car and returned to their carriage. Banging on the locked door, she called out, “Are you ready yet?”. The door slid open and a suave Milanese gentleman answered with an eager smile: “Madam, I’m always ready”. Do I need to add that it had been the wrong door? Or that they all enjoyed a convivial meal together in the “Voiture Restaurant”?

I thought “palazzo” would be difficult to conceal in the grid, but was amazed and delighted to find that “LAZZO” is a word in Chambers. It was then easy to hide “RIODI” and “PA” symmetrically elsewhere.

Initially (having already got 2 zeds!) I aimed for a “pangram”, as I often do [it helps me decide which words to choose from the list offered by QXW], and I was pleased to have “latte” in the top row, as well as “vino” further down. But this, along with with “Judaic”, forced the word “Lund” at 3dn. I didn’t want a little-known Swedish town, so I went with the fill as shown. As far as I can remember, there’s still a Q in the final grid?

I’m not very keen on the clue-writing part of the exercise (who is?) but I reckoned I had, for the first time, a puzzle worth offering to the Listener team. I’m very grateful to them for the quiet way they tweaked or re-wrote many of my clues and prepared the puzzle for publication without a painful gestation period.



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Listener No 4553, Inscription: A Setter’s Blog by Dysart

Posted by Listen With Others on 26 May 2019

Back in the sixties I was aware of the iconic image of Vitruvian Man without knowing its name or creator, as it was used as part of the introductory sequence to ITV’s World In Action. Once I learned more about it, I considered constructing a puzzle based on the image not long after I started setting puzzles, but it remained just an idea until about two years ago when I noted that May 2nd 2019 would be the quincentenary of Leonardo da Vinci’s death. I needed to move quickly.

Da Vinci labelled the drawing ‘the proportions of the human body according to Vitruvius,’ the Roman architect and engineer whose treatise on ideal proportions in architecture was based on proportions in the human body. The following internet page gives further information on the artist’s use of the Roman architect’s work for anyone interested: My Modern Met.

Initially I wasn’t sure how to treat the theme, but gradually I came to think that it might be possible to design a grid containing a rough template for drawing the man. Da Vinci drew lines dividing the body into sections to indicate the proportions (with crossword setters in mind?). This proved useful because the two lines delineating the torso show it to be a third of the total height. The five cells for the letters of TORSO ideally demanded a 14×14 grid, but by that time I’d decided that solvers would be asked to add the circle, thus making the effective dimensions 17×17, which would almost certainly present the editors with problems. I settled on a 13×13 grid, which would require a roughly 16×16 circle. It wouldn’t matter if the final O of each ‘TORSO’extended below the groin into the thigh area. Without revealing the theme I asked Roger Phillips if a space of 16×16 cells for the grid area would be feasible. His reply that they had previously managed to accommodate a 17×17 grid reassured me, so I went ahead.

I opted for a carte blanche grid to avoid obtrusive bars that would spoil the final result. Mirror symmetry was an obvious thematic choice, and that would make it easier for solvers to build the grid. Although some letters could be in consecutive cells, others would need to be spaced apart unless I resorted to some jumbled entries, which I wanted to avoid. Solvers would need some recognizable pattern in the spacing, which I achieved using alternate cells and ‘knight’s moves’. After plotting the letters of ARMS, LEGS and TORSO on a 13×13 grid I superimposed it on an image of Vitruvian Man scaled to the same size. The result (Stage.1) looked close enough. The main weakness was that the Rs of the raised ARMS were out of line, but there was little I could do about that, and the letters were intended to be only a guide to the drawing, not a precise template.

Stage 1

Initially I wasn’t sure what word could indicate the head. In the end I decided it wasn’t necessary, and a large cell could be left blank to be filled in by solvers in the finale. The title of the piece seemed the best hint to the theme and I decided to include it in the grid via letters unclued in wordplay. VITRUVIAN MAN proved awkward because of the initial V. With the thematic letters of the figure already fixed, it was impossible to place a V in the first few rows. My choice of the Italian title was to solve this problem, not to confuse solvers. It was also necessary to build in an instruction to add the circle to complete the artwork. I wanted to avoid another clue gimmick (mixed gimmicks are usually a potential source of confusion for solvers), and as the grid was to be carte blanche I thought one set of clues could be in alphabetical order of answers, with initial letters of clues providing the instruction when arranged in normal order.

Construction of the grid wasn’t particularly difficult. I couldn’t avoid three five-letter entries with two unchecked cells, but there were four entries with no unches by way of compensation, and I was able to get in some thirteen-letter entries to help solvers placing answers. Replacing PEGLEG with LEGLEN in column 7 resulted in a sequence of four Ls in row 8, which rather restricted the fill options. My reason for the replacement was to force solvers to use the G of GROPES to show the rotated foot of the man’s left leg

When I came to prepare a solution in Photoshop using an outline of the artist’s original I noticed that the square was not quite square and the circle was slightly elliptical. This meant that when I tried to superimpose the original on my grid and then add the circle nothing quite lined up. One of the feet and one of the raised arms failed to meet the circle. To get everything right I had to true up the image of Vitruvian Man in Photoshop. The da Vinci drawing can be seen to be out of true by expanding it to fill the monitor screen; the bottom of the square will not be parallel to the bottom edge of the screen

Test solves revealed no major issues, so after tweaking some clues I sent the puzzle to the Listener editors, praying that another setter had not already submitted a centenary puzzle. In my solution notes I included one grid using the original artwork just to show it fitted the grid closely. I did expect some complaints about a final task that would present difficulties to the artistically challenged but feedback has been very positive. It‘s only fair that I should attempt what I was asking solvers to do, so the final image is my drawing of Vitruvian Man, only achieved after a couple of attempts and rather more time than most solvers would want to spend on it. I failed O level art and have never been able to draw humans or animals, or much else.


One solver in his feedback wondered “what was going on at his groin, which is probably why he looks so depressed.” A few years ago one medical expert suggested that the model had an inguinal hernia causing the bulge in his groin.

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Listener No 4550, Moving Up and Down: A Setter’s Blog by Ferret

Posted by Listen With Others on 5 May 2019

Last year I compiled a puzzle for Magpie magazine called Up and Down for which I used the up/down word exchange device in the clues. There were a lot of clues and I was struggling with some of them so I put it to one side for a while. Shortly afterwards I was listening to CLASSIC fM in the car when ‘Funiculi Funicula’ was broadcast. I suspect my brain was mentally attuned to the Up/Down concept and I thought it might make a good puzzle with the tracks of a funicular running up and down in the grid. When I got home I googled the song and was surprised to find, like most solvers I suspect, that it was written to commemorate the opening of a funicular on an active volcano. So… now I thought I must have the tracks going up and down Mount Vesuvius; maybe being destroyed in an eruption.

Denza and Turco each have 5 letters and Funiculi and Funicula each have 8 letters so it made sense to put them into adjacent columns to represent the tracks. Fitting the thematic elements together and coming up with a grid happened in tandem. I settled on the grid that was used in the puzzle because of the high average length of entries. It allowed solvers good checking in the unclued thematic columns and incorporated (the clued) Vesuvius crossing them. I needed an even number of horizontal clues and fortunately INSTALLATION fitted across the middle row, so, it became unclued and referenced it in the preamble.

Hopefully you solved it and like me, enjoyed finding out about this bizarre installation and the subsequent use/misuse of the music. Finally, very many apologies if you who couldn’t get the song out of your head for some time afterwards.

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Listener No 4548, Brexit: A Setter’s Blog by KevGar

Posted by Listen With Others on 27 April 2019

I’m not really sure what triggered the idea of compiling a Listener around Brexit, more than a year ago now. My original plan was to try to use as many words as possible containing “BR”, which, after the removal of “BR”, would leave real words. The resulting list was fairly small, and I thought that with such a limited number of possible words, it wouldn’t be worthwhile trying to construct a puzzle solely around the “exit” of BR. I then had the idea that as well as removing “BR” from one or more words, I could do the opposite for the other countries within the EU, i.e. adding the appropriate IVR abbreviations into words, creating new words.

This was fairly straightforward for some of the countries, but much harder for others (BG, DK, CY for instance), and the constraints of trying to use all of the countries made the overall construction of the grid quite challenging.

I decided that using the crossing 12-letter words “separationist” and “devolutionist” would be a useful, suitable starting point, and developed the overall grid from there. After many attempts I thought that I was going to end up having to omit one other country from the grid and that I would require solvers to identify the other country which was surprisingly exiting from the EU (LVExit!). However, after much re-working of the grid, I managed to ensure that Latvia was indeed included (saLVe).

My original submission contained a rather obscure abbreviation in plural format which I wasn’t really happy about. However, the second referee managed to make some minor adjustments to the grid to produce a more sensible/acceptable entry.

I certainly didn’t envisage the position that the country would be in when I submitted “my” Brexit as a possible Listener over 12 months ago!

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