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Listener No 4469, Follow-My-Leader: A Setter’s Blog by Harribobs

Posted by Listen With Others on 15 October 2017

I suppose the idea for a puzzle can emerge in two ways. You might be reading a magazine, watching a documentary, or browsing Wikipedia, and come across an interesting theme, and then ponder over how best to illustrate it in a 13×13 grid. Or you might think about how the words and letters of the crossword can be manipulated to reveal hidden information, and then try to find a theme that fits in with the gimmick.

Follow-My-Leader arose from the latter process. In other puzzles I’ve used coordinates to pick out cells to be highlighted, or to be joined together in a line drawing, but it occurred to me that the coordinates themselves could spell out a thematic text.

I needed a set of thematic elements, ordered alphabetically, chronologically, numerically, or whatever, so that their corresponding coordinates would produce the text. I started on, and went so far as clueing up, a puzzle where the clashes were stops along a journey, but eventually decided that some of the place names were too obscure. French presidents were my next thought but, as it was too late to get accepted in time for the French elections, I settled on the list of German chancellors.

The text containing the coordinates for all eight post-war chancellors would have sixteen letters. DIE BUNDESKANZLER was a possibility, but PALAIS SCHAUMBURG was more interesting and meant that “location” could refer both to the location of the clashes and to the occasional location of the Chancellors themselves.

The words in the indexing row and column were chosen so that all letters were different, and theme cells weren’t too close together. Bars in the symmetrical grid were set so that all theme cells were checked, and other bars adjusted until words could be found that produced the desired jumbles of the Chancellors in the right places.

This last step proved easier than expected. It seems that, even for quite awkward words like KIESINGER, you can generally find two words that clash to give the required anagram. For this technique, and also the use of an integral indexing row and column, I owe a debt of gratitude to Sabre who used them in the magnificent Identity Crisis (Listener No 4367).

I should also like to thank the editors for their advice and surprisingly thorough checking of the clues.


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Listener No 4468, Hide-and-Seek: A Setter’s Blog by Charybdis

Posted by Listen With Others on 8 October 2017

I’m no historian. But I have a few narrow windows of enlightenment set like arrow slits into the thick walls of my prevailing historical ignorance. One of these might be Rome in the time of I, Claudius; another the 1660’s as represented in Ian Pears’ extraordinary An Instance Of The Fingerpost. And so on.

So I should explain that I have had a bee in my bonnet about Richard III ever since reading The Daughter Of Time by Josephine Tey over 40 years ago. Since the British Crime Writers Association voted this the best crime novel of all time, I’m clearly not alone. Although personally, I would vote for The Nine Tailors by Dorothy L Sayers as much more well-rounded in literary terms, but that’s by the by.

It‘s not much of a spoiler to say The Daughter Of Time treats the matter of Richard III’s villainy as a kind of cold case whodunnit and gently leads the ill-informed reader (me in my 20’s) from cardboard cutout villainy to a very different understanding of the man, and how and why and by whom his reputation was systematically trashed.

His recent winning of the World Hide & Seek record (not my joke but worth nicking) really was a case of ‘Truth is stranger than fiction’. That he should have been found at all, and under a carpark of all places; that his should have been the very first body unearthed, and underneath the very first bit of tarmac to be penetrated – it was just absurd. I’m a hardened cynic about improbable news stories so was sceptical, but as all the mitochondrial DNA evidence and scoliosis and all the rest of it slowly mounted up over the following weeks and months we were finally left with no doubt.

And it’s odd to think that only such an attention-grabbing story could have led to such a public re-evaluation of his reputation, one such as Tey could only have dreamed of. He seems to have re-emerged into public consciousness, blinking in the bright light of newsworthiness like the equally wronged Edmond Dantes emerging from the Chateau d’If.

So, ‘Truth is stranger than fiction’. Readers of Tey’s RIII novel would also know Francis Bacon‘s dictum that ‘Truth is The Daughter Of Time’. I’d like to say that at the time of Richard‘s exhumation in 2012 I immediately saw the connection and relevance of both these ‘Truth is’ sayings and recognised it as the basis for a thematic crossword. In fact it wasn’t until March 2015 that I began work on the puzzle. But in my experience thematic crosswords are more often like the second cousins once removed of time.

The extra ingredient that kicked things off was the Robert Wyatt connection. I have been a fan of Robert Wyatt since I heard Soft Machine Volume 2 in roughly 1969. (Can’t stand Volume 1! But the poignant solo album Cuckooland is hugely recommended.) So anyway, I have a well-scratched copy of Ruth Is Stranger Than Richard (with its memorable album cover). Why it hit me I don’t remember now, probably just my normal daydreaming, but I know it was only when I realised the felicity of the ‘Richard’ bit of that title that this puzzle suddenly jelled.

The actual construction of the grid is not of much interest, I think, but I knew the elements should include allusion to the Hide & Seek joke, the two “Truth is…” quotes and the discovery to be made of RIII under Leicester Car Park. Noticing that FICTION and RICHARD were swappable, with new crossing words to be factored in, was also essential.

And Wyatt’s title required Truth to become Ruth, a hidden character to be sought (or seeked) out. The opportunity for her to be the daughter of Tim, a third hider to balance a team of three seekers, was just too good to pass up I’m afraid, though it did cause a bit of head-scratching for some, apparently. (Ruth Is The Daughter Of Time would have been a meaningless loose end, when you think about it.)

One comment on Answerbank, for instance, says “[I] remain puzzled by the first two hiders and wonder if they have any significance beyond assisting the final stages. Dare say all will be revealed.”

Well, many keen Listener people will be aware of Kathryn Friedlander, who has done so much excellent research on the psychological ramifications of crossword setting and solving. Continuing the Truth Is Stranger Than Fiction thread, I will end with a quote [with permission] from her feedback on this puzzle:

“Rather startling for me. My daughter Ruth is indeed the offspring of my husband Tim — and his first name, not much used, is Richard!”

[Cue twilight zone music…]

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Listener No 4467, Theme of the Day: A Setter’s Blog by Kea

Posted by Listen With Others on 1 October 2017

When scheduling Listener puzzles for a batch towards the end of the year, I found I had a surplus of complicated and/or difficult crosswords and nothing with normal clues and a simple theme ready to balance them, so I resolved to come up with something myself. With the other puzzles slotted in, 9 September was the date available, which apparently is Chrysanthemum Day in Japan. That offered the opportunity to do an unusual grid design that had been in the back of my mind for years — I feel that we have too much conformity in our grids, non-rectangular ones being rather rare these days.

I compiled a list of chrysanthemum words, which came in two lengths, short (6) and long (11 or 12), which looked like they would fit a Fibonacci-like spiral arrangement of petals, long entries in one direction and short in the other. After a few days experimenting with a graphics program, I managed to produce something I was happy with, that looked aesthetically pleasing and in which it should be clear how the answers were to be entered. Then I made a minor tweak that slightly spoiled it, which I didn’t notice until it was too late to fix: the join between the last two cells in clockwise entries 2, 3 etc isn’t really clean. Rather than rebuild the diagram from scratch, I justified it on the basis that real-world flowers aren’t perfectly formed.

To fill the grid, I mostly used Sympathy, “unrolling” the grid to a diagonal band with across and down corresponding to clockwise and anticlockwise respectively, and manually checking that the top-right end matched the bottom-left. This allowed me to keep an eye on the unching, making sure each entry had enough letters checked by crossing entries. The average entry length ended up as 7.83, well above my usual target of 6 (and the suggested Listener minimum of 5.5).

Writing the clues, it was refreshing not to have to deal with a lot of short words of the kind that keep cropping up (repetition being another concern when scheduling the puzzles). I tried to rein in my tendency to write devious clues, but towards the end I couldn’t resist a few obscurities.

After we’d vetted the puzzle, I spotted that one of the unclued entries could be either POMPOM or POMPON, with the last letter unchecked. There wasn’t an easy way to change the grid to resolve that, and a preamble note would be clumsy, so I added the asterisks in cells that could form CHRYSANTHEMUM, including the final M of 15. And that was it.

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Listener No 4466, X XX XXX: A Setter’s Blog by Somniloquist

Posted by Listen With Others on 24 September 2017

I initially submitted this puzzle (my first) more than three years ago, so it’s satisfying to finally see it in print. I’d been intending to set a Listener for years and a lull at work gave me the opportunity. Naturally, as a programmer, I spent the first month writing software that could fill a grid with arbitrarily complex treatments and rules (although if I’d known about QXW, I could have saved myself some time). I’d already settled on Sir Gawain as a suitable theme: plenty of thematic material and obscure enough that most solvers wouldn’t be able to take shortcuts. The “beheading game” lent itself to an answer treatment (and to different treatments for the two protagonists) and the exchange of kisses for animals gave me a suitably obscure title and more thematic content in the grid. I also could not give up the chance to include some Middle English and managed to find a relevant quote that was fairly easy to understand and only had a single obsolete letter, thorn (þ). As it represents ‘th’ in a single letter, a clash seemed like a logical way to indicate it. At that time, the name BERTILAK, the recipient of the kisses, was also revealed in the grid.

This first version was rejected – I’d tried to cram too much into too small a grid – but Roger liked the theme and encouraged me to rework it, suggesting some changes and a new grid layout. This also reminded me that the aim is to produce something fun to solve, not just to show off how many tricks you can fit in one grid.

A year later, I found time to work on it again. I decided to start from scratch, expanding the grid from 12×12 to 13×13, removing BERTILAK, but adding THORN (as the letter ‘th’ could equally be ETH). This gave me a lot more flexibility and choice on the final words: so I could reject the grids where ten of the answers were types of rock or half of them were plurals. Once I’d got the software to fill the grid (with the movable “heads” spelling out names and a single clash), I could move onto the clues. The across clues were straightforward, but the downs, with up to three letters removed, were a challenge; it took a few weeks to get the allocation of letters to clues right so that each one was viable. The final piece of the puzzle was to link the deletion of letters to the title, rather than explicitly mention deleting letters in the preamble (as suggested by ‘Eck, who test solved the puzzle and gave other valuable advice). This required rewriting a few clues, as there were none with a single letter removed, but I think made it all hang together better. The second version made it past the vetters relatively unscathed.

In spite of all the thematic content, my intention was that solvers could complete the puzzle without searching for the story or the quotation: all the content can be deduced and the symbol/meaning for thorn is given in Chambers.

I await inspiration for my next Listener, which hopefully won’t take quite so long.


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Listener No 4465, PQRST?: A Setter’s Blog by Yorick

Posted by Listen With Others on 17 September 2017

I first constructed a grid for this puzzle over 20 years ago, and it looked very different from the finished article. Firstly, I had blacked-out squares placed in it where they would fill out the thematic items, thus making symmetry impossible. Secondly, I included a rhombus (with unequal sides!) in the same way as the other five shapes. Lastly, I had decided that entries not contributing to any item would be clued in Printer’s Devilry fashion – I’d even started writing some of these clues (my favourite being “Insane wit shot in Costa Rica (6)”) – and that for the others, wordplay in the clues would give rise to the entries but minus the letters contributing to the items.

After Hefbeet in 2015 (my first ever published puzzle) was well received, I looked through my archives for the next idea, and decided that this one was the most promising. With the benefit of experience, I realised that drastic changes were required: the blacked-out squares had to go, allowing a symmetrical grid to be constructed; the inaccurate rhombus was (reluctantly) dropped; and the clueing had to be more helpful. Use of clashing entries to create blanks resolved the first and most significant issue, and enabled me to start afresh with just the five items placed in a grid so that I could try to fill in words around them. Various versions were started and discarded before I hit on one that came near to completion. Unfortunately, it was almost too successful in that it had very few unches, which made it very difficult to resolve the final missing words.

It was at this point that the rhombus, which I’d never quite managed to shake off, came to my aid. I realised that I could sidestep the potential clashes that remained and reintroduce the rhombus by having seven entries based on wordplay rather than definition that would also indicate the letters of “rhombus”, the idea at that stage being to get the solver to write the name of this sixth item below the grid.

At last, I could get on with the clues. I particularly enjoyed finding deceptive misprints for the majority that required them, my favourite being 42ac ILIAN (as it was for several of the solvers who were kind enough to provide feedback).

All the while, the rhombus continued to niggle away at the back of my mind until it occurred to me that an accurate one could be drawn using hypotenuses of 3-4-5 triangles for two of the sides — serendipitously, there was just enough room in the top left corner to fit one in. (Another piece of serendipity came in the form of the title which was absent until very late on when I spotted the alphabetic sequence in the names of the items.) Embarrassingly though, for a former mathematician, I’d completely overlooked the fact that a diamond is also a rhombus. Fortunately, the editors spotted this, and between us we made the requirement more rigorous — though even then there were several solutions sent in with a diamond completely surrounding the rectangle (an alternative that was eventually deemed acceptable).

At least my clues stood up to the editors’ red pens relatively well, with about half of them surviving unscathed — my inexperience when writing the original clues for Hefbeet led to a bloodbath, and an almost complete rewrite being required! My thanks to Roger and Shane for their support, encouragement and contribution.

I’ve delved back into the archives for my next offering and, with a gridfill already completed, merely have to overcome a case of “setter’s block” before moving on to the clues — as ever, I look forward to the challenge!

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