This one had its origins in a longstanding note in my ideas file to the effect that NEW YORK CITY and THE BIG APPLE were both eleven letters long. And that was where it rested for a few years – obviously some idea around changing one to the other in the grid (‘all final entries are real words’) was not gelling.
Over the years I have now produced several puzzles where several squares are occupied by a single letter (whether based on the Snellen Chart, the Moon Illusion or Optics). This concept reared its head again at some point, though I can’t now remember how it all came together.
It was obvious from an early stage that the apple that was going to be made big would have to be Cox. Each letter occupies two columns, so Granny Smith would have required a grid N x 22 (at least). For some reason it feels that it would have been more acceptable to have 22 rows – tall, thin puzzles feel better than short squat ones.
COX also offered some longer words that ended in -COX. It struck me that BOX AND COX would occupy 12 columns, and offer the usual 12×12 grid. Sometime around then it must have also lodged that NEW AMSTERDAM was a thematic 12-letter answer and could sit as the symmetrically opposite entry.
A gridding concern with this sort of idea is that the grid ends up heavily cross-checked. If you want your big letters to fill four cells, then there can be no bars. That isn’t quite so bad around the affected entries, but their symmetric pairs also must have few bars. Of course, you could abandon symmetry, but at the expense of immediately indicating that there’s something going on in a particular part of the grid.
The restricted checking also made it hard for the alternative letters (N/T, E/H, W/E and so on) to make words both across and down, and I dropped fairly early. If there were going to be non-words, they had to be the correct non-words, and that was driven by the presence of ‘the big apple’ in the grid.
I looked at NEW AMSTERDAM and realized I could wrangle a first across clue that involved the title as a component. That’s a very American thing, I thought – in particular, the setting team of Emily Cox and Henry Rathvon do that quite frequently in their monthly puzzles for the Wall Street Journal. It would be splendid to note that this link to a setter called Cox in a New York publication had occurred to me before typing this paragraph, but no.