The third of my three recent barred thematic puzzles was, I think, the easiest. We’ll come back to that point, but first: where did the idea come from?
I listen a lot to my iPod walking to and from the railway station. I try to give a bit of structure to the process: this year was going to be the Haydn operas (astonishingly good value on iTunes), though that has been postponed due to the completion of the Petrenko Shostakovich cycle. A couple of years ago it was the Haydn symphonies in numerical order.
That took a while, but was very pleasurable. Partway through I thought that there might be a crossword idea in there. I’m sure you’ll all be able to guess which symphony I was listening to at the time.
Hands up who said 68? The slow movement, in fact – the longest single movement in all the Haydn symphonies (longer than the second symphony in its entirety). It has some typical Haydn wit – a walking-bass that occasional gets petulant and stamps – and I found myself thinking that with such a plenitude of nicknames and such a generalised air of intellectual play, the Haydn symphonies must be ripe for a crossword.
We had the bicentenary of his death in 2009, of course (that may be when I started listening my way through them, in fact), and there had been a lot of play with the nicknames then. So I cast my mind back to the circumstances of the Farewell Symphony, which seemed to offer options in terms of removals.
This is an idea that has a very visual stimulus – the representation of a physical event in verbal terms. How to clear part of the grid? Well, determine the letters that need to go. How to determine them, then? Surplus in clues perhaps. Should removal be complete? Well, no, Haydn, as boss, was staying around to carry any can (as it happens the leader of the orchestra stayed as well). And the final touch – having identified (and cleared) the stage, why not get solvers to highlight some blank squares.
All the thematic material went in horizontally, and I even used an acronym for the entry containing the CE of AUDIENCE, thinking that resorting to an acronym for _ERN when there were other options (TERN, FERN etc.) might point the way for some. Then the clues – my favourite this time was WOODCRAFT which obligingly dropped ‘Ward of court’ into my lap when I spotted UR remaining among the departing pairs and triples.
It wasn’t meant to be a hard crossword – more here, I hoped, of elegance and implementation of idea. Comments seen so far suggest that that wasn’t too far of the mark.
But that brings up the other item to discuss – the relative hardness of the different outlets for barred thematic puzzles. I’ve been quite vocal about how I still rate the pecking order as Listener, Enigmatic Variations and Inquisitor in decreasing order of difficulty.
And yet my recent burst of one of each has come out in reverse order, so far as I can tell. Hmm.
One point is the various pipelines for the various puzzles, which means puzzles set at different times pop up in non-chronological order. In addition, the Listener pipeline is now significantly longer than the others, and this means, I think, that ideas are more likely to be shifted to the other outlets, particularly if the idea is of the ‘you know you really have to set me NOW’ variety. I can’t claim that I sat straight down and gridded the Haydn puzzle the moment I’d thought of it crossing Horoeka Road (just four minutes from home). But the EV idea I’m currently working on was a ‘look at that on Wikipedia; it looks like a crossword grid – how did I never see that before? quick, sketch it out – oh, it’s finished’ sort of thing – followed by ‘and I need something for EV, don’t I?’
Still, Off We Go was never expected to be difficult, and here we tread into murkier territory. I have to admit that, while most ideas could well be interchanged between the different outlets, some get ‘Listener’ or ‘EV’ or ‘IQ’ or ‘Magpie’ attached at an early stage, and you can’t always pry such attachments off. This will, on occasion, override the pecking order mentioned above.
I may as well throw Testament (which I put up the other day) into the mix. That was designed as a severe test, yet oddly the idea sprang fully-formed into my mind (a very visual impression of the final grid), and the complexity emerged as I wrestled it into shape. I suppose I always knew it would have multiple layers, simply from the initial concept, yet the absolute complexity was never the real driving force. Equally, though, in its first incarnation it was never going to be anything other than a Listener puzzle.
I suppose I am tiptoeing round the difficult questions of just where ideas come form, and how they form. Each idea is different, and while I may attempt to put some sort of structure and classification on them – and may even do so successfully most of the time – there are always going to be some that don’t fit.