Ghost themes

I put a lot of thematic components into the Friday Independent daily.  Sometimes the theme will be overt, with references to a specific answer in the grid.  Other puzzles may have messages winding through them, and still others will have ‘ghost themes’ in them, where a number of answers relate to a theme, but without announcing it.  There’s one of those coming up next Tuesday (15 July, 2014), so here are a few thoughts on how such a puzzle is put together, armed with which you can go out and try and spot the theme.

Why do I do themes at all?  One important reason is that I find a blank grid is quite daunting; I imagine composers must feel the same way when they roll out a new sheet of music paper.  So having a few ideas for some words to go in is a bit of a boon.  A ghost theme provides those words.

The first step is to choose your theme.  It’s usually the work of a creative artist I admire, so things like the novels of Dickens, the paintings of Paul Klee, and the films of Wes Anderson have all featured.  I’ve just this week finished clueing one on…but that would be telling.  Wait till September.

So, what do you do?  You assemble a list of suitable words.  They have to be common words – you can’t assume that the solver will share your enthusiasm.  Some years ago I worked several Terry Pratchett titles into a grid, plus his surname.  The titles were fine: a lot of Pratchett’s titles are essentially common English words and phrases.  It was his surname that provoked most comment, and of the ‘Who he?’ variety.  It seemed vain to suggest that his position as one of the UK’s best-selling writers might mean he was fair game to go into a puzzle.  Popular culture, as I’ve often mused, isn’t quite as popular as it thinks.  (It does however seem a good idea to be dead – like Klee and Dickens – though one can see that as less of a career move in general.)

So you’ve got your list.  With Wes Anderson, this involved a desire to include one word at least from each movie title in the grid.  (In the end, I missed Darjeeling (The Darjeeling Ltd didn’t offer much else!)  I did get both elements of Bottle Rocket in as a sort of compensation.)  That gave me about 7 to 9 words, which is about right, in my opinion.  More words and you run the risk of the grid starting to look a bit peculiar (though I have one with 12 coming along).  Fewer words, and why bother?

You then construct the grid.  At this point, my word list will have gained numbers (the lengths of the words), as I try and see which words will fit symmetrically to give me the bare bones of a grid.  After that, it’s the usual jigsawing and dictionary riffling, which isn’t always exciting, though it’s good for your vocabulary.

And then you write the clues.  Did I say I missed Darjeeling?  Not quite – I managed to work it into a clue, and it does pay to glance at the clues from time to time, particularly their initial letters.  A puzzle on the lovers in A Midsummer Night’s Dream had a quote round the perimeter, the girls in the grid and the boys in the initial letters of consecutive clues.

Yes, I did say the Friday daily (my usual slot) and, yes, I did say the next such puzzle was on Tuesday 15 July.  You might want to bear that change of date in mind as well as you search for the theme…


OK, the solution is up and I promised a little more on the theme.  Here’s the grid:

Birtwistle puzzle


You might also want to take a look at the solving blog on fifteensquared.  Quite a number of solvers twigged the theme of Harrison Birtwistle, whose 80th birthday it was, including one listening to some of the music at the time.  And that’s pleasant – equally, though, the puzzle was solveable without spotting the theme – the oddest word was PRE-AMP, I suppose.  (I sort of know what one is but would still fall over one without identifying it.)

So, how did I go about choosing what to put in?  The first point was the composer’s surname.  He may be well-known in his field, and has a number of honours, but I decided against putting the name itself in.  It’s perfectly clueable (“Composer runs dance in bitterness” – can’t ignore that TWIST there), but might not be deemed fair.  BIRD and WHISTLE on the other hand are fair game, and I have encountered a translation of a French review which had got its spelling confused, and commented on how musical a name it was.  Thanks to Dava Sobel, the horologist John Harrison is well-enough known, and indeed has inspired one of Birtwistle’s works, Harrison’s Clocks.  So, HARRISON BIRD WHISTLE gave me three entries.  Four or five more to be drawn from the works, perhaps?  Things like Tragoedia and Nenia were probably not going to make the cut…

ORPHEUS (a recurring motif for Birtwistle) was a definite (and I’d used ORPHEUS to link Birtwistle with Gluck for my July BBC Music Magazine puzzle; Gluck’s tercentenary fell on July 2).  I remembered The LAST SUPPER from a performance in Oxford, and it’s a good example of a thematic phrase also in common parlance.

PANIC was a good short word, and a notorious piece – oddly, a Last Night of the Proms I didn’t attend, as I was recording a TV quiz programme in Manchester that weekend.  And GAWAIN was easy to slot in so that its trickier letters were unchecked.  Any more?  Well, the rest of the grid filled nicely, and the final pattern looked good.  LITANY crept in, which feels the sort of thing that should be in a Birtwistle title, speaking as it does of ritual and theatre, but I don’t think there’s an example.

And now you just clue it – the clues, of course, must not be thematic.  The whole point is for someone entirely oblivious to the theme to be able to get through the puzzle.

Well, the clues weren’t entirely devoid of thematic content.  I put some money into a campaign being run by the record label NMC to produce recordings of three modern operas this year, the first being Gawain.  As a reward, I would receive copies of the operas, and somewhere along the line I picked up the notion that the CD booklets were going to be signed, and queried this when mine wasn’t (my error, I should add).  Somewhere in that exchange I mentioned I was setting the puzzle, and the idea developed that NMC would circulate news of the puzzle via its Friends’ newsletter, and I’d write this blog to help people perhaps uncertain about themes in tackling the puzzle.

But could I put NMC into the puzzle?  Well, there are various concerns about mentioning existing companies – advertising, unfair promotion, and the like.  (Yes, I know it’s only a crossword, but you’d be surprised…)  But it needn’t be overt.  Is there a credible entry with -NMC- in it?  (After all, Birtwistle has a work called …agm…).  Well, there is, implausibly enough – think Robert Service and Dan McGrew.  How about what NMC stands for: New Music Cassettes?  (They’ve been around a while.)  A bit recondite, and also 17 letters long, and by the time I’d got each word in separately, I’d be using up space for Birtwistle references.

In the end, I turned to the clues, and their initial letters (I did suggest you look there in the original blog).  The first three and last three of both Across and Down sets start with the letters NMC.

These ghost themes are fun to do, and they’ll keep appearing – though not every puzzle will have one.  However, you may want to recall that another composer has an 80th birthday coming up…that couldn’t, perchance, be referenced in the puzzle I’m clueing right now…could it?




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