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Listener No 4668: Impossible Construction by Serpent

Posted by Listen With Others on 8 Aug 2021

I can’t remember how or why I came to see a 6×6 word square. But I do remember thinking that it would be really neat if such a square could be embedded in the middle of a puzzle grid. I then decided that I wanted to have a solution grid in which bars framed the word square. The basic design of the puzzle flowed quite naturally from these requirements: it would have to be a carte blanche and some entries would have to be jumbled.

These features of the puzzle meant it would require a substantial amount of cold-solving and therefore be tricky to solve. I imposed 90-degree rotational symmetry on the grid in order to mitigate some of the difficulties presented to the solver by a carte blanche puzzle with jumbled entries. I also decided it would be nice to have four 7-letter entries framing the word square and to use the clues for those entries to provide a thematic hint. I decided to use an existing word square in which the first entry was CIRCLE – I liked the idea of “squaring the circle” and using the title Impossible Construction.

At this point, I began to look for a suitable grid-fill. I use Qxw for this purpose – its free-light feature and the option to have jumbled entries made it relatively easy to explore the possibilities. I imagined that it might be difficult to find a grid-fill, given the constraints, so my first attempts used the ukacd.txt dictionary. These preliminary efforts confirmed that a grid-fill was possible, so I then tried a much smaller dictionary – the one I tend to use for blocked puzzles – to see whether it was possible to fill the grid with common words. (Again, I thought it would be helpful to the solver if the grid entries were not obscure.) After some fine-tuning, mainly to remove plural and inflected forms, I had a grid in which almost all the entries were familiar.

Writing the clues was relatively straightforward as only four clues made use of a gimmick. However, hiding the words PROMISE TO SETTLE UP in four specific clues was non-trivial, especially ensuring that the two shorter words could be the only possible extra words in their respective clues.

The feedback from my two long-suffering test-solvers (thanks, as always, David and Norman) was very encouraging, so it was time to send the puzzle to Shane and Roger. I was very pleased with their feedback and the fact that the clues didn’t require much tweaking. The preamble, however, did require a few significant changes. Many thanks to the editors for their efforts in improving the puzzle ready for publication.

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Listener No. 4666, Octet: A Setter‘s Blog by Hedge-sparrow

Posted by Listen With Others on 25 Jul 2021

Growing up in urban Luton, I remember my Mum, particularly during the winter months, regularly hanging a net of peanuts on the washing line: and very quickly, the net was full of blue tits eating their fill. These were not the anti-squirrel, anti-pigeon, antibacterial, scientifically-proven bird-feeders of today: they were simply net bags full of peanuts, and the blue-tits and great tits and others came in their droves to feed from them.

These days, Catherine and I have a number of the modern, scientific bird-feeders in our suburban Birmingham garden, and we do indeed get some birds visiting them. (Or rather, we did, until our next-door-neighbours acquired a couple of cats: the cats are lovely, but unfortunately, they tend to discourage other creatures. So whilst next-door’s cupboard-under-the-stairs mice have now moved into our cupboard-under-the-stairs – and who can blame them, poor little things – and the humane trap deployed, nearly all our garden birds, sadly, have flown.) But for anyone of a certain age who has an urban or a suburban garden, it’s impossible not to notice the decline in the number of garden birds compared with 50 years ago, and this includes our resident blue tits and great tits and other titmice, even though (according to the 2021 RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch) they’re actually doing reasonably well compared with many other species.

So my love of, and concern for, our British birds and other wildlife, mean I often return to this source of inspiration for my crossword puzzles, and I do hope the puzzle-solving community will forgive me for it.

Anyway, on with the blog for Octet. The idea for the puzzle was suggested by the fact that the word TITMOUSE has eight letters, and there are eight different titmice native to Britain: although, as the preamble to the puzzle hinted, two of these – the LONG-TAILED TIT and the BEARDED TIT – are tits in name only, and actually belong to other families. Exploring this a little further, I noticed that the letters of TITMOUSE occurred one-by-one in the names of the different titmice in positions that would enable the formation of new words by substitution of alternative letters (e.g. CRESTED -> CREATED). Reversing this process was therefore the basis for the puzzle: to have solvers discover the TITMOUSE theme through the clues (from corrections to misprints in eight definitions), and having done so, to use the letters of TITMOUSE to alter entries in the grid (always leaving real crossing words, which is the expectation these days) to create the names of the eight British titmice.

Several years ago, I had a puzzle published whose theme was British owls, and solvers were required to shade the names of the owls in the final grid. Unfortunately, I neglected to indicate (in the preamble, or elsewhere) that the theme was actually British owls: as a result, solvers quite legitimately found all sorts of other owls in the grid (sea owls, desert owls, Tasmanian three-legged owls, and any number of others 😊), at least some of which had to be accepted as legitimate in submitted solutions. It was a little embarrassing for me. Still, I learned my lesson, and as a result, made sure that in Octet I established the “British Isles” context, this time through pairs of extra letters appearing in six other clues.

On that basis, I formed my puzzle grid, created my clues, wrote my preamble, and that was that. Except, as is quite typical with me, it wasn’t. I decided I didn’t like the fact that, to create BLUE (for BLUE tit), for example, solvers had to replace the unchecked third letter of BLEE (an archaic word meaning “complexion” or “colour”) with the “U” from TITMOUSE. I asked myself: “Since the letter to be replaced is unchecked, why wouldn’t I (as the setter) just use the obvious ‘blue’ in the grid, rather than the obscure ‘blee’?” And, not being able to answer myself convincingly, I decided to start again, this time trying to ensure that any grid entries requiring letter replacements to create the thematic names, were not themselves too obscure.

In the second “final grid” I came up with, seven of the eight letter replacements that were required to create the names of the titmice also formed new crossing words, the exception being MARSH (formed from HARSH) whose first letter H was unchecked. I rather cravenly decided I couldn’t quite face starting yet again to try to get all eight modified entries also forming new crossing entries, so left it at that, and submitted the puzzle to Roger and Shane at the Listener. When Octet’s turn for review came, they kindly agreed to its publication, and after a few final edits, it was ready to go.

Following publication, I received a number of kind comments about the puzzle, and I really do thank the solvers who took the trouble to write these, either on-line or to me personally: they are very encouraging and are much appreciated. One consistent comment was that the puzzle was relatively “easy”, certainly as far as Listener puzzles go. This surprised me a little, as I hadn’t realised that was the case: I certainly didn’t deliberately make it so (though neither was it intended to be at the super-tough end of the scale!) Still, perhaps it’s no bad thing to have a simpler puzzle now and again, and hopefully it still gave enjoyment.

Finally, as ever, many thanks to the Listener editors, Roger and Shane, for their unstinting efforts in getting these puzzles ready for publication each week.

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Listener no 4663, Blurred Lines: A Setter’s Blog by Skylark

Posted by Listen With Others on 4 Jul 2021

My parents loved music and often played records, including The Greatest Garner. One fevered night I felt so happy, floating down a sunlit stream hearing the most beautiful music ever, which, when my fever broke, and I could tell Mum, we realised was Erroll Garner’s Skylark. It remains one of my favourite tunes. In my dad’s other Garner LP, Encores in Hi-Fi, I loved Erroll’s whimsical rendition of Humoresque. And when Dad bought Erroll Garner At The Piano, Erroll’s superb technique became apparent. (Most of the tracks, including Caravan and Lullaby of Birdland were recorded in a single take). When I started to buy my own music, I treated myself to Concert By The Sea, One World Concert, and several more CDs, but those two and At The Piano remain my favourite Erroll recordings.

One day I spotted Erroll Garner: The Most Happy Piano by James M. Doran in our library. Naturally, I snapped it up, and loved learning about my favourite pianist. Erroll couldn’t read music and wasn’t very academic, but a teacher changed his life, getting a piano installed in every classroom so that Garner could pursue his passion. Aged 7, he was playing on the radio. As an adult, he was so short that he chose to sit on two piano directories atop the piano stool to perform. I wrote to Mr Doran care of the publishers, to tell him how much his book had meant to me and soon afterwards, he phoned, telling me he wanted to fly to the UK to see me! (He lives in New York). His motive soon became clear – he wanted to relaunch the Erroll Garner Appreciation Society, with me running the UK and European side whilst he ran the USA and produced the magazine. Of course I agreed. During a lovely few days, Jim took me to London to meet some fellow Erroll fans, who soon became friends.

Though I never saw Erroll live (he died too soon), I enjoyed celebrating him with other fans. We often met in London to trawl Mole Jazz, Ray’s Records and Tower Records in search of rare treasures. The most notable meeting was in 1992, when we flew Eddie Calhoun, double bassist, and Kelly Martin, drummer, veterans of Erroll’s trio, to London. I was thrilled to meet them both – especially when Kelly called me his adopted daughter!

Once in Vancouver on business for a couple of nights, I was lucky enough to track down the club (with Jim’s help) where Erroll’s elder brother Linton, also a professional pianist, was playing. He looked like Erroll, exhibited similarities in playing and was utterly charming in conversation. He was very kind too, sending me a lovely photo of Erroll when I arrived home.

Sadly, most of my fellow fans have died now, and the Appreciation Society is no more. But I longed to mark the centenary of his birth by getting an Erroll grid published. It had to include Concert By the Sea, but I also wanted to include his most popular composition, Misty, in musical notes. However the first two phrases (“Look at me, I’m as helpless as a kitten in tree,” in Johnny Burke’s lyric), the grid had to be 14 cells wide – too wide perhaps? Plus there were several versions of Misty online in various keys. I had used the one in my piano books, starting on Bb, and believe that that’s the only possible solution, given the extra letters and grid, but still the endgame might frustrate some solvers.

Without much expectation of success, I submitted it, mentioning my worries about the endgame, so was particularly thrilled when Roger and Shane accepted it.

Be very careful about fan mail you send to authors. You never know where it might lead…

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Listener No 4662, Hungry: A Setter’s Blog by Android

Posted by Listen With Others on 27 Jun 2021

I don’t think I can explain how the idea for Hungry came about. All I can say is that I had been reading some Poe around the same time that I had been contemplating creating some puzzles when the idea of a puzzle based on The Raven popped into my head. I guess it makes sense though – if I knew the process for coming up with a good idea, I would have good ideas all the time.

The plan was to create a puzzle with the following features:

  • clues with a gimmick that would lead the solver to a line from the poem and a hint to a ‘titular character’.
  • the words “raven” and “Pallas” appearing somewhere in the grid.
  • an instruction to move the word “raven” to somewhere appropriate.

This felt like it had legs, but I was sure that there was a more interesting representation of the raven waiting to be utilised. The raven is described luridly in the poem as being “Ghastly, grim and ancient” and I wondered if the words GHASTLY, GRIM and ANCIENT could somehow be made to form a representation of a raven.

I started to play around with sheets of squared paper to try and find an arrangement of cells (henceforth referred to as the “birdblock”) that a) looked a bit like a bird and b) could have its outer cells populated with the words GHASTLY, GRIM and ANCIENT. It soon became apparent that for this to work there would need to be a fourth word. The latest iteration of the birdblock had three cells in a row at its base. I realised that if those were filled in with POE and one further cell were to be introduced elsewhere then there would be the correct number of outer cells for the other words. I found a place where the extra cell could be introduced, and stage 1 was complete.

With the outer form of the birdblock defined, I started to think about the grid. I wanted there to be enough space to enable the birdblock to be repositioned in such a way that meant no cells were shared between the before and after positions. Using a 14×13 grid I found a pair of positions for the birdblock (and for Pallas), and I could move on to constructing the rest of the grid.

I decided that I wanted all final entries to be real words (ignoring the spaces that would be left by the movement). This is something I always appreciate in other puzzles and so I felt compelled to make it a feature of this one even though it would increase the difficulty of the construction.

To make things easier, I decided to allow some of the initial grid entries to be jumbles of the corresponding answers. I wanted the clues for these to be normal, but I also needed to reserve a number of normal entries for:

(1)   gimmick clues that were to be associated with the line from the poem

(2)   gimmick clues that were to be associated with the hint to the ‘titular character’

(3)   gimmick clues that were to be associated with additional thematic items/words

For (1), I had decided that the (partial) line I wanted to use was “Tell me what thy lordly name is”. I liked this as it could be referred to simply as a ‘request’ in the preamble and it is also from the line that follows that of “Ghastly, grim and ancient raven…”, making it easy to refer to one of the lines as following or preceding the other in the preamble.

For (2), I wanted the hint to be Corvus Corax. Apart from its thematic relevance, I also liked the fact that the sequence of letters meant that it was unlikely to be guessable until most of the letters had been determined.

For (3), I wanted some clues to have jumbles of thematic words that would be required to be removed before solving. How many of these I would include would depend on the grid construction.

Given the requirements of (1), (2) and (3) there were only a few entries that could be jumbled, not without having a large number of total entries. I was also conscious of the fact that, to justify having jumbled entries in the grid, there would need to be an above average degree of checking.

I loaded two instances of QXW and positioned them side-by-side: one with a grid with the birdblock in the before position and one with the birdblock in the after position. I placed PALLAS in the same position in both.

The ANC _ _ T* of the birdblock suggested ANCESTOR as an entry. This would work well for the initial grid as removing ANCEST would leave OR. The ANCEST in the final grid would work if broken down as ANCES | T since ANCES is a stem for many words. Because I was operating with a pair of grids, the bar appearing after the R in ANCESTOR (and its symmetrical counterpart) needed to be introduced into the final grid and the bar appearing between the ANCES and T in the final grid needed to be introduced into the initial grid.

I won’t give an entry-by-entry account of how the before and after grids were finally formed (primarily because I don’t have an audit trail that would allow me to do this with any degree of truthfulness), but I hope the ANCESTOR example gives an insight into the dual mindset adopted during construction. I will however note the following:

  • I didn’t know if it would end up being a real word or a jumble in the initial grid, but I wanted 36a to have a final entry of POETRY.
  • I wanted the letter above the C of ANCIENT to be O to give the raven an eye (I’m glad to hear that some solvers took it upon themselves to colour this in).
  • Whilst initially unplanned, the OUST of 44a became a permanent feature of later iterations of the grids as the OUS was perfectly placed with respect to the initial birdblock, linking nicely with the title (hungry = ravenous).
  • Some of the jumbles were formed in such a way as to make it obvious where some of the birdblock cells (before and after) were, e.g., ENTIREGN and NGTRAIPSE. This was to try and make the inevitable grid stare when searching for the raven a bit fairer on the solver (apologies if I failed in this respect).

During the early phase of construction, I struggled to keep the number of jumbled entries down to a reasonable level. I was tempted to revert to programming but in the end, I persevered with my method of ping-ponging between the two grids. In the end the grid(s) had 54 entries which was higher than I had planned. The number of jumbled entries was 17 and the total letter count of TELL ME WHAT THY LORDLY NAME IS and CORVUS CORAX is 36 meaning 53 of the 54 entries were accounted for. This left one clue that could contain a jumble of a thematic string as per (3). To tie in with the request, I wanted this string to be NEVERMORE, which could be referred to as the ‘response’ to the request in the preamble.

At this point I was ready to write the clues. The setting guidelines state that a word count of 650 (or greater) would be in danger of getting the puzzle rejected. This placed a restriction on what clue gimmicks could be used. With 54 clues to write, gimmicks involving extra words were off the table. Although tougher to write, I decided to use misprints in the definition as the gimmick. It took a while and several rewrites, but I eventually produced a set of clues that I was happy with.

Writing the preamble was tougher than I had expected. As well as having to contend with the word count limit, I also struggled to give clear instructions as to how the words GHASTLY, GRIM, ANCIENT and POE were disposed in the initial grid.

I was otherwise happy with the puzzle and so I sent it to Shane, hoping that it wouldn’t be rejected. After several months I received an email from Roger confirming the puzzle’s publication date. The editors had made some amendments to the clues, either making some of the jumbled entry clues fairer or reducing the letter count of some of the longer ones. The main change was made to the preamble which, as well being made more concise, was now less opaque than the one I had submitted. Corvus Corax was now described as a sensible answer to the request rather than as a hint to a ‘titular character’ (although it still achieved that). Mercifully, the grid required no changes to be made to it. The changes made by the editors improved the puzzle greatly and I would like to take this opportunity to thank Shane and Roger for their efforts in this regard.

I would also like to thank everybody who took the time to give feedback. Hungry is my first published puzzle and I wasn’t sure what people would make of it. People seem to have enjoyed it and the kind comments have made the torture of the grid construction worthwhile.


Posted in Setting Blogs | 4 Comments »

Listener No 4661: One Across by Lionheart

Posted by Listen With Others on 20 Jun 2021

The idea for One Across came from learning the terms parallel and cross cousin in a quiz, and noticing how the directions also fit crossword entries. I started building the grid after my first Listener suggestion was rejected for the average word length being too short. It seemed like the easiest grid to build of the ideas I’d had. There weren’t actually that many pairs of famous cousins (a list of 30 Celebrities You Won’t Believe Are Related would include 25 people you’ve never heard of) so I was pleased to find four pairs with workable names, work out exactly what kind of cousin each pair were, and then fit them into a puzzle. 

At this point I was still thinking of this as grid-filling practice. It was when I remembered the term cousin-german that I decided to go on with the clues. I like Listeners where the whole puzzle is thematically linked – where the cluing gimmick does more than give you an extra instruction that could have been preamble. I immediately both wanted to write this and dreaded having to do it with just one year of schoolboy German.

Cluing took a while; the first thing I found was that the grid was pretty constrained and that COHYPONYM couldn’t be removed. There are some words you don’t want to define and you also don’t want to write wordplay for, so I was delighted to get a decent clue, with the lovely gift = poison. I wrote the German clues first with a list of ‘false friends’. Some obviously went with one answer or another – like bier and ale – but most took a lot of headscratching. The extra letter clues were almost relaxing afterwards.

I sent this off to the editors and didn’t expect to hear back. The immediate reply was ‘we’ve got a backlog of 50 submissions to go through’ and I started worrying that the inclusion of living people wouldn’t be okay. So I was amazed to see my puzzle would be published. 

I’ve got to thank the editors for their work with my clues. In particular, my original clue for NEELE used ‘alt rock’ to disguise the pointy rock definition of needle. Roger and Shane worked out that neele never meant that, but reclued it whilst keeping the spirit of my original (as if writing partly German clues isn’t hard enough).

My pseudonym is the obvious one with first name Richard and middle name Leo. Thanks to everyone who solved this puzzle, whether you liked it or not. I’m still learning and so I hope you enjoy the next one more!


Posted in Setting Blogs | 3 Comments »