EV 1460 – Big Dave's Crossword Blog
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EV 1460

Enigmatic Variations 1460

A Human Connection by Ranunculus

Setter’s Blog


Incorrect letters give BO GOLDMAN (Scent of a Woman) and BRONOWSKI (The Ascent of Man). Four women are modified to include a scent; four entries are modified to show men rising.

I was introduced to crosswords at an early age by my mother, and after many years of solving I started entering the clue writing contests in the Sunday Times and Observer. As well as teaching me a lot about clue construction, this gave me the confidence to move on to setting complete crosswords, my first published puzzle being an EV in 2014. In order to spread the blame for my puzzles, I go by a variety of pseudonyms, all linked in some way to amphibians – I set for this site as Phibs, and my ‘EV name’, Ranunculus, is Latin for ‘little frog’.

I hadn’t set an EV puzzle for a while, but the cancellation of the series earlier this year and its subsequent reprieve spurred me into action. As usual, my biggest challenge was to come up with an original idea for a theme. I’d had The Ascent of Man in my mind for a while in connection with male names ‘ascending’ in the grid, but didn’t feel it was enough on its own for a puzzle. Then it struck me that Scent of a Woman had a similar ring to it, and a quick trawl through the Some First Names section of the BRB confirmed that there were enough potentially fragrant women and upright men for my purposes; I had already decided that including eight ‘special’ entries (four across, four down) would allow me to fill the grid without needing to call on large numbers of obscure words. The fact that BO GOLDMAN and BRONOWSKI were each nine letters long maintained a certain symmetry between the across and down themes, and I was pleased to find that the first results from googling ‘bogoldman’ and ‘bronowski’ were the two writers’ respective Wikipedia pages, since I certainly couldn’t assume that either would be familiar to solvers.

When it comes to gimmicks that provide a message, I’m no fan of clues that don’t lead to the solution (eg ‘wordplay delivers an extra letter’), preferring ‘errors’ in definitions that have to be corrected prior to solving, such that the amended clue is normal. Incidentally, I favour use of the displaced letters in the message rather than their replacements because this reduces the scope for uncertainty (eg in 6a even if you thought the intended definition for ‘ravel’ was ‘mangle’ rather than ‘tangle’ you wouldn’t end up trying to track down ‘Mo Goldman’).

I felt that it was essential to guide solvers towards the entries to be modified, hence the last letter of clue/last letter of solution device. This was fine as far as the eight special clues went, but more than once I came up with a half-decent clue for one of the other entries only to realize that their last letters were the same…a clear case of digging a hole and then falling straight into it! I never like to see non-words in a finished grid, but I didn’t feel they could be avoided here; in order to confirm that the correct changes had been made and to limit any possible ambiguity (I’m sure there’s a Ropert or Deris out there somewhere), I added the cross-check (MIND BURN) for the introduced letters.

I use the Crossword Compiler program (on a PC) from the grid creation stage onwards, largely populating the grid manually but periodically using the automatic fill option to give suggestions and to confirm that I’m not going down a blind alley. I try to include as few adverbs and technical terms as possible – they are difficult to clue interestingly at the best of times, and positively horrid if their definitions have to be misprinted. Once the grid is filled, I type in a clue for each entry in sequence and then review what I’ve got; if there are 40 clues, three or four will typically get my approval, a number will be marked with a single ‘/’ at the start (‘needs improvement’), and several will receive the dreaded ‘//’ (‘total rewrite’). At the next pass, another four or five will make the grade, and so on…and on. Finally I check by hand for repetition of abbreviations and indicators, grouping them by type (abbreviation, letter selection, containment etc), and tweak clues accordingly. I then firm up the preamble and solve the puzzle from scratch. Since I don’t use test solvers, this involves trying to imagine that I’ve never seen the puzzle before, but for some reason clues that I find quite easy the day after I wrote them mysteriously become well-nigh impossible to solve when the pre-publication proof arrives from the editor several weeks later.

I don’t usually struggle to find titles for my puzzles, but the dual-theme aspect made this one tricky, particularly given the rule that EV titles also have to appear in the preamble. Having started off as ‘Loosely Similar’ (true, but not very helpful) it turned into ‘A Sense of Being’ before a joint effort with the editor brought an end to the deliberation.

I’d not worked with the current EV Editor before, so inevitably there were one or two elements of my clues that weren’t to Steve’s taste, but he was unfailingly patient and helpful in getting everything into shape for publication. Note to potential setters: when I submitted my first themed puzzle six years ago I had no idea what to expect, but every editor I have worked with has been extremely supportive, and any criticism offered has invariably been constructive…new setters are actively encouraged, so if you’re thinking of having a go, don’t hold back!

I was delighted when I first heard that hints for EV puzzles were going to be provided on this site, and both the quality of the hints and the response of solvers have been extremely gratifying. I hope I’m not shattering any illusions, but it seems that the Numpties aren’t locked in a room and forced to ‘do their thing’ in a couple of hours on Sunday morning (though I guess that could change were their enthusiasm to wane). The fact that they had sight of this puzzle a little before everyone else was a big help to me because they highlighted a couple of clues that were considerably more difficult to unravel than I had intended, and which I was thus able to rewrite before publication. So my thanks to them, to Steve, and to everyone who had a crack at finding the HUMAN CONNECTION.

A full review of this puzzle can be seen over on fifteensquared.

10 comments on “EV 1460

  1. Hi Ranunculus. It was good to hear of your setting background and procedure. I smiled at your comment about solving your own when the proof comes – I am just the same and sometimes find I don’t remember setting it at all and can’t solve it. Indeed, we are lucky to have advance knowledge of the puzzles as a solve may take us several hours and writing the hints is quite a long task – we’d be struggling to completeit on Sunday morning. We were lucky with yours in that Bronowski appeared fairly quickly (a copy is on the shelves) and we enjoyed the puzzle, thanks.

  2. Thank you Ranunculus for providing such an entertaining puzzle. It’s really interesting to hear ‘straight from the setter’s mouth’ about just how much time and effort goes into setting an EV puzzle, to make sure it’s both fair and challenging. I needed some help from the Numpties to complete the grid, and then google to find the Bo Goldman connection. I’m a new recruit to EVs and am fast becoming addicted!

  3. Thanks, Ranunculus, for sharing your process. This was such an interesting read! As challenging as these EVs are, it’s comforting to hear just how much thought, effort, and time go into making them fair.
    I loved the puzzle, too. The theme was great, and the surface readings of the clues were so smooth with a lot of humor. 14a, 15a, 25a, 4d, 8d, 11d, and 29d were among my favorites.

  4. Many thanks for your interesting and informative comments on the setting process you employ. I admire your self-discipline in terms of writing clues in sequence; I find that when I’ve contrived something for a recalcitrant entry I have an overwhelming need to reward myself by then tackling a sitter!

    More generally it’s really pleasing to see how well this innovation is going. And of course my thanks for the puzzle.

  5. Thank you for the puzzle, Ranunculus, and the background information. I love that you put so much care into thinking about alternative plausible elements a solver could come up with, and making sure they can get to the correct endgame anyway.

    When I got to BO(G)O(L)DMA, where the bracketed letters were guesses from clues I hadn’t fully parsed, it seemed likely my guesses were correct and was obvious what the surname was, leading to a successful web search. Unfortunately with the downs I only got to RONOW(I). But I was enjoying the crossword enough that when the full solution was published I used that to fill in my missing answers (hurriedly paging past any explanations of the theme), then I could still delight in discovering the end-game.

    It was an ingenious pairing of themes, and if I’d heard of Bronowski or his TV series before, I probably could’ve got there, and maybe even reverse-solved my missing answers. I was going to attempt the PopMaster “before my time, Ken” defence — it was broadcast several years before I was born — but I see at least one episode was repeated on BBC4 only a decade ago, and I am aware of Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation, which is even older.

    (But please don’t treat that as an invitation to devise an EV which combines Civilisation with the life of the Conservative politician of the same name …)

    Please can somebody explain the confusion in 7d, which for me is still living up to its name.

    My favourite clue was the clever Simpsons reference in 24a. I was also impressed that with the end-game it didn’t matter if you first found ROBERT, changing MEAT to BEAT, or DENIS, changing MEAT to MEAN — both ways yielding valid intermediate words before the BEAT or MEAN made its second change to BEAN.

    I look forward to your next puzzle.

      1. Thanks, Dave. I’d seen “spilled type” as a definition somewhere, but somehow had failed to match that to ‘confusion’.

        It seems apt that a word for a jumble of letters has so many spellings.

  6. Many thanks for the feedback and the kind comments. I’m glad to hear that the puzzle generally seems to have been enjoyed, and gladder still that some of the solvers were recent recruits :good:

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