This is a tale of three Ninas.
This weekend sees two of my puzzles being blogged more or less simultaneously on fifteensquared, a consequence of having the Saturday prize puzzle last week and back to my usual Friday slot this week. They have different Ninas – and obviously they involve different thematic material, but they are, to me, at least, different in concept as well. (We’ll come to the third Nina in due course.)
Last week’s Nina was born of the usual dread – how do I start filling a grid? As so often, I solved the problem by turning to a ready-made list of words. In this case, it occurred to me that I might use the names of race-winning horses. These often have somewhat ridiculous names, of course – Sire: The Venetian; Dam: Daisy-cutter; Progeny: Blind Mowing, that sort of thing (and there have been crosswords based on that sort of thing). But when I fetched up on the Wikipedia page for Derby winners, I found a rather fine list of single-word dictionary-entry horses in the years from 1801 onwards. There are ten from 1801-50 in the grid, and there were more I could have chosen. I filled what turned out to be a rather standard-looking grid, and, as is my habit, put it aside for a while.
Once I’d clued it and was getting ready to send it to the editor, it occurred to me to check when exactly the 2015 Derby was being run. It turned out to be only a couple of weeks after the initial scheduled date for the puzzle, so a bit of judicious rearrangement, and there we were. I don’t know that I ever expected anyone to make the connection, but Mike carefully put a non-date-related puzzle in my usual Friday slot, with the aim of hinting that it was my puzzle that had moved to an appropriate date.
The West Side Story puzzle which came along a few weeks later was just a happy thought as I considered the names of the characters. I hadn’t even been listening to the piece, and I don’t know where the idea of it came from. It certainly helped that Tony and Maria, the main protagonists, have names that have other dictionary meanings, and the gang members’ nicknames were good fodder too – in fact, they were mostly quite short, which enabled me to get four for each gang in. The title itself had 13 letters so it went down the middle column and the Jets went on one side and the Sharks on the other, the same numbers of each, of course. One might have thought that the combined word wizardry of Messrs Laurents, Bernstein and Sondheim might have avoided having Tiger as a Jet, but no. (But maybe it’s a sort of joke.)
With this sort of Nina, a lot of thematic material presents itself at the outset, without much need for digging, though also with only a limited number of options. The grid, as a result, tends to have a more obvious ‘Here be hidden messages’ feel. As many bloggers note, the presence of unchecked letters around all or some of the perimeter is often a good hint that ‘something is going on’. On the other hand, getting a Nina into the sort of grid that newspapers would more-or-less automatically consider adding to their stock of standard grids (if such they have) is more satisfying.
So don’t let next week’s four-way symmetric, closely-interlocked grid fool you. I put seven thematic entries into it, and [expletive] if when I came to clue it I didn’t spot an eighth. And it was really rather pleasant to see so innocuous a grid containing something rather more nocuous. But Independent solvers are clean-minded souls, so I imagine they’ll miss it.
Which sort of brings me to this week’s puzzle which is an Enigmatic Variations grid from 2003. I remember filling the grid and sitting back and looking at it, and slowly realising that, without really thinking about it, I had ended up with a standard sort of 12×12 Beelzebub type grid (in fact, it has only 34 entries). I couldn’t even see a ready way of opening it up to squeeze in more thematic material, so there it stayed.