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Theme Variations | The Nation

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Word Salad

Kosman and Picciotto on their Nation puzzle, cryptic crosswords, wordplay and puzzles in general.

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Theme Variations

[First off, links to the current puzzle and solving guidelines]

SPOILER ALERT: If you haven’t solved our previous puzzle yet, you might not want to read on.

One of the things we’ve been exploring during our first year at The Nation is how to add thematic content to the world of the black-square cryptic crossword. (Variety cryptics, of the kind that appear monthly in Harper’s and the Wall Street Journal, are themed by definition, and don’t need our help.) The themes have come in a variety of flavors, but one way to categorize them would be based on how pervasive a theme is in a given puzzle.

The simplest type of theme, which is where we began, entails a few distinctive entries while the rest of the puzzle remains standard. Our audition puzzle, for instance, included four related long phrases (BANANA REPUBLIC, ORANGE FREE STATE, JOHNNY APPLESEED and FRUIT OF THE LOOM), after which we just filled the grid as we could. That kind of theme continues to offer fertile opportunities, and is our most common go-to strategy.

Another sort of theme lives not in the diagram, but in the clues. For example, in Puzzle #3201, which was published during the Arab spring, every one of the twenty-two countries in the Arab League appears in one of the clues. In Puzzle #3231, which appeared in the “Occupy” special issue, many clues included variations on the word: occupational, preoccupy, unoccupied and so on.

In the past month, though, we’ve turned up the pressure on ourselves by adopting what we might call “full-compliance” themes—that is, ones in which every aspect of the puzzle needs to fit the theme. The first such was Puzzle #3242, for The Nation’s special issue about Amazon. We began with the less ambitious idea of getting a few river names into the clues, but we wound up fitting in so many that we decided to go all the way and put a river into every clue. (And believe us, the last few we wrote were a bit of a stretch.)

Last issue’s puzzle, in which the grid included no vowels other than E, was even more challenging to construct. The idea came from a wordplay chestnut, the fact that Ellen Degeneres’s name is a slew of E’s. (Years ago, Joshua created a little entertainment for a National Puzzlers’ League gathering, based on a dozen such E-only notables as Renee Zellweger, Helen Keller, Peewee Reese and Bennett Cerf. It was aptly titled “Twelve Celebs.”) With ELLEN DEGENERES and EVERGREEN TREES symmetrically placed, it was then a matter of filling in the rest of the grid with words that also fit the constraint.

In theory, we could have gone even further. One early plan—or rather dream—was to match the E-only grid with clues that complemented it by excluding any use of the letter E (in the manner of George Perec’s great 1969 novel La Disparition, translated into English by Gilbert Adair as A Void). But we quickly abandoned that, for two reasons. One was that a grid full of E’s together with clues lacking E’s would have meant that we couldn’t do any anagram clues, which are the life’s blood of cryptic crosswords. The second was, Are you freaking kidding? However, we don’t rule out an E-less set of clues for some future puzzle!

Do you have any thoughts on these or other puzzle themes? Please share them below, along with comments, questions, kudos or complaints about last issue’s puzzle or any previous puzzle.

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