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Archive for the ‘Setting Blogs’ Category

Listener No 4587, Of Course: A Setter’s Blog by Malva

Posted by Listen With Others on 19 January 2020

I have to admit it came as a pleasant surprise to learn Of Course would appear during the festive season, and for a few deluded moments, I even considered the possibility of my puzzles becoming as much a Christmas tradition as watching The Guns of Navarone, picking up the poinsettia leaves that start dropping off 30 minutes after you get it home and wondering if there’s any connection between inadvertently forgetting the binmen’s Christmas box and finding our wheelie bin up a tree at the end of the road.

Realistically, I suppose there’s not much chance of my puzzles becoming a seasonal staple, so I’ll just have to content myself with the traditions I’ve helped establish over the years. Like us hosting the Boxing Day extended family bash for a good while, in which, spookily enough, words featured large in the post-prandial games.

There was the dictionary game, where you had to come up with definitions for obscure words (you can tell how long ago it was by the fact that you could say polenta was a South American burrowing rodent and everyone reckoned that was spot on). Then there was the letter game, where you had to compile a long list of things beginning with a randomly chosen letter, but that had its own holly-hued headaches, especially when Aunty Olga would have a nuclear strop because she insisted Yugoslavia began with a J, which was a tad irrelevant because the chosen letter was F, and Uncle Russell had already given himself three points for Fasso, Burkina and no-one wanted to play after that. Usually, by about seven, there had been enough cross words to fill the other 51 weeks of the year and the assembled crew trotted off and we were just left with about six hundredweight of washing-up and not a single morsel (or ort as most solvers would say) of uneaten food apart from a bucket of Cousin Helen’s homemade chestnut stuffing, which I eventually used to waterproof the porch roof where a couple of the tiles had slipped.

OK, so Of Course won’t be setting any Yuletide precedents and probably a proportion of solvers will be hoping I at least follow New Year tradition by resolving to create just one more avian puzzle at the most – obviously to be completed using a feather quill and delivered to John Green by carrier pigeon. But then, who makes resolutions any more?

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Listener No 4586, Square Deal?: A Setter’s Blog by Tiburon

Posted by Listen With Others on 12 January 2020

I find the toughest part about compiling to be coming up with a suitable theme. I envy those who tell me they have long lists of potential puzzle ideas and not enough time to implement them. Perhaps having more time on my hands will help the creative juices to flow…

I had long had the idea for a puzzle based on the standard Tangram pieces. A search of the Crossword Database (thanks to our host!) confirmed my suspicion that this ancient Chinese game had not featured in the Listener (the one previous outing had been a Pieman puzzle in Magpie in 2005). I liked the idea of requiring solvers to dissect the grid and rearrange it into something thematically appropriate. I can’t really remember when the idea of a Christmas tree finale came to me, but I felt it would be nice to aim for a festively themed puzzle (at the time, I had not yet tested Pointer’s puzzle!) for a change. I found a suitable Tangram tree online and set to designing the puzzle.

My first problem was how to give solvers the necessary instructions to cut up the grid and to reassemble it correctly. I thought of presenting dots at the intersections of the Tangram shapes in the blank grid, but that felt like a cop out. Maybe I could devise some gimmick to lead solvers to place such dots, but that felt quite convoluted. I then noticed that most of the ‘cuts’ would be diagonal and thought of using two-letter cells to be divided by appropriately oriented diagonal lines to give solvers guides to the lines to be cut, but I suspected that would end up with a very complex grid fill and the cut between the parallelogram and the small triangle could not be indicated this way as it ran along gridlines. This is when I came up with the idea of matching letters to enable the reassembly and having those letters identified by being omitted from wordplay. The pesky ‘trunk’/‘pot’ didn’t align perfectly with the rest of the tree, which forced the slight exception to the instructions. I found that judicious placement of these ‘key’ letters provided very little optionality with the cuts, so I could now proceed to producing a grid.

I had already decided to give hints to the final submission by delivering TANGRAM from the clues. I then thought of the carol O Christmas Tree (possibly a subliminal nudge from the Pointer puzzle?) and decided to deliver the original German title O Tannenbaum for further slight misdirection. I then decided to give a seasonal message in the assembled ‘tree’ as a final flourish. The slightly less British MERRY was forced by giving easier letters than HAPPY to accommodate in the grid.

The grid fill was still quite tricky, given the constraints I had set myself (particularly the fully checked two-letter cells), but after half a dozen or so attempts, I was satisfied with a grid that had some interesting words to clue. I tried hard, but was unable to remove the slight flaw of two entries each needing to contain two unindicated letters.

The really enjoyable part was cluing the puzzle. The clue gimmicks I had decided upon left four normal clues, so I decided to use them to ‘bracket’ each of the three words delivered by misprints. Over the course of about two weeks (I was still working) I completed my first draft set of clues. I was delighted to spot some serendipitous misprints such as “finally accepted” and “food like savarin”, but struggled with others (eg, OCTET and AULIC). I spent a further week trying to polish these before having the puzzle test-solved. Then it was off to Roger after a few more tweaks and he agreed to publishing two festive puzzles in the run-up to Christmas. I also have him to thank for the title and the solution artwork.

I did have qualms about how fiddly the task would be for some and the difficulties it might pose for our inimitable checker John Green. In the end I hoped that the final pay-off would outweigh the inconvenience. Feedback I have received suggests it just about did.

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Listener No 4585, In this World of Sin…: A Setter’s Blog by Pointer

Posted by Listen With Others on 5 January 2020

A reminder to solvers of how many like to think of this time year: But in this world of sin, Where meek souls will receive him still. The dear Christ enters in. And here, in the puzzle, Christ — abbreviated to X — enters the grid in the bottom row to form ILEX ET HEDERA (The Holly and the Ivy).

As a possible theme, I’ve had this idea in my mind for many years. It came to me, as most ideas do, as a result of engaging in an activity and applying a crossword twist to my interpretation of what I was seeing. So, when reading the words of the carol (not singing the words, I might add, for long ago I gave up the notion of my being able to sing), I was struck by the way extracts of the chorus could be seen as “wordplay” for clues.

The rising of the sun
The running of the deer
The playing of the merry organ
Sweet singing in the choir

The first suggested a reversal, the third an anagram, the last one a hidden word; the third wasn’t so obvious but could surely represent a charade, couldn’t it? That was the start of it.

I often wonder how different setters get their spark at the beginning of the setting process. Do you remember the wonderful puzzle Check This Out, by Charybdis (No. 4268)? The theme was set around the phrase “unexpected item in the bagging area” and (wow!) drew in a Raymond Chandler quote to do with a tarantula on a slice of angel food. I thought, Yes, Chris was standing in a queue at the till in Sainsbury’s, probably bored and wondering, maybe subconsciously, what his next puzzle could be about.

Then there was 24 Across by Pilcrow (No. 4198). Did Pilcrow’s spark for this puzzle come whilst he was reading about or watching Premier League football and incidentally started to investigate how the name Arsene Wenger could be transformed into the words Arsenal Manager? I myself am an avid football fan, and sometimes can’t help myself playing in my mind with the names of the footballers and the teams appearing on my tv screen. Recently, during a match (Spurs v West Ham) I spotted a name on the shirt of one player which was an anagram of that on the shirt of another! (Any ideas, who the players were?) The best coincidence I can think of was when Collins John was signed by Fulham in 2004. In the previous year Fulham had on their books an international by the name of John Collins.

Once I had decided on a Holly/Ivy theme, there were decisions to be made about how to represent the two key lines “Of all the trees that are in the wood, the holly bears the crown.” I needed a lot of trees restricted by wood. The best way I found of building a frame to show the “wood” part was to dig out a Chambers’ definition. A surprise came when I saw amongst my list of trees the word ANTIAR; the link with tiara was my eureka moment. How this sort of thing happens is just a mystery to me. The setting process then became one of fitting together the trees, making sure that the antiar was placed above the holly and selecting an appropriate description of wood to surround them all. Easy-peasy!

Hope all Listener solvers and setters have a restful and enjoyable time over the festive period, whether or not their dear Christ enters in.

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Listener No 4583, Potatoes: A Setter’s Blog by JFD

Posted by Listen With Others on 22 December 2019

I was asked to provide this blog as a debutant setter. I have been a Listener solver intermittently for many years, and fairly regularly for the last five. Imagine my surprise when, in a casual conversation about crosswords at my local bridge club one evening a year or two ago, I discovered that my interlocutor was the incomparable Shackleton.

He should not be insulted if I say that he’s a better setter than he is a bridge player, as that evaluation still leaves plenty of room for a high quality bridge game! We had a pint together a few weeks later, during which I picked his brains about the setting process and he encouraged me to give it a try.

I’ve always been good with words but chronically lacking in imagination (as a writer, I would have been a biographer rather than a novelist) so I started by searching for a suitable quotation around which to construct a puzzle. I had read Fruits of the Earth, in translation, at university almost 50 years ago and the advice to Nathanael particularly appealed to me at the time. I even used it as the basis of a very ham-fisted teenage poem.

So the quotation was filed away in the back of my brain waiting for its day in the sun, and this was provided when the reference to emotions being an intoxication suggested a grid fill. Repeated letters (S in SADNESS and DISGUST) required some care to ensure that there was no ambiguity.

My original submission contained two basic errors. First, I failed to spot that the device I was using to spell out the quotation was inconsistent with several of my suggested clues, as they implied that the wordplay with the extra letter, and the definition without it, were equivalent. Secondly, in my enthusiasm to cram in as much thematic material as possible, some of my clues were ridiculously contrived.

The editors ruthlessly (but entirely justifiably!) purged all my clued references to Gide’s dodgy weekend with Oscar Wilde in Algeria, his connection with the French existentialists, his introduction to Hogg’s Confessions of a Justified Sinner and the titles of several of his own works. They very generously described this major surgery as ‘tweaking’. The rigour of their tweaking, and their inventiveness in proposing far more elegant (if less thematic) alternatives, were an eye-opener and will be very useful if I decide to put my head above the parapet again.

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Listener No 4582, Full Steam Ahead: A Setter’s Blog by Hedgehog

Posted by Listen With Others on 15 December 2019

I developed Full Steam Ahead some six years ago so my memory of working on it is somewhat hazy.

I enjoy trying to incorporate a new idea into a puzzle and so the idea to insert numbers into the clue answers and to give that a message was appealing. Can it be done and how could it work? Highlighting GO in green and the title were ideas in the back of my mind so were in at the beginning. I do remember trying to construct a message by only inserting single digits which only gave 9 letters (or ten if 0 was used). On the other hand, having some two-digit insertions seemed a bit untidy. When I went for the more messy approach of some two-digit insertions, I immediately thought of the clue for 1 across as a way to get started. The puzzle looked at if it might be very intimidating for solvers (and the setter) so it was attractive to have a deduction to get started immediately. The length of the message and 1 across determined the rough size of the grid and a little playing around gave me the final one.

After that, the grid fill was largely determined by the location of extra numbers and 3,8,9s. This was particularly problematic in the bottom half of the grid and took quite a time. After the grid fill, I only had a clue to 1 across but added a number of higher powers of the lower digits to fit the style of 1 across and give a way to solve for digits although at that stage there was no clear solution path.

At this stage, I sit down and solve the puzzle. It really doesn’t matter that I know the answer as it is simply a logical exercise as to whether the answer can be deduced. I don’t remember having to change many of the original clues. It was pleasing that it turned into two stages — deducing the letter values and the grid fill — and neither was trivial.

In retrospect, I feel that it is not the neatest of puzzles but does have a somewhat different logical challenge and is not just a number-crunching exercise. However I await the opinions of solvers.

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