Behind the scenes: who are the FT’s crossword compilers?
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Your setter/compiler handle/pseudonym/alter ego Zamorca.
Why? I am mad about guinea pigs and thought it would be interesting to see what the word for guinea pig is in other languages. Often the results were quite boring or wordy. Zamorca is guinea pig in Bosnian.
Real name: Wendy Law
Where are you? Willingham — a village just outside Cambridge.
Years compiling I was first published in 1999 as Hectence, setting for the Guardian Quiptic. I was making crosswords for my mum and dad for many years before that, though. I was first published in the FT in 2019. And measured in number of crosswords: 211.
Full time or part-time with another job? Until May 2019, I worked as a library manager for Cambridgeshire Libraries as a job-share overseeing five village libraries.
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Did your school mention crossword compiling in career discussions? Ha ha, certainly not! After my degree (English and Italian at Leeds University) I did many jobs, mostly administrative, including Ministry of Agriculture, Official Receiver, Education Finance before finally ending up where I should have started, in libraries.
Who/what got you into cryptic crosswords? My parents, especially my mum, who loved doing them. My dad and I would join in to help her finish them when she got stuck. In a big group of friends at university, I had a friend who set for the Leeds Student magazine — they were really hard puzzles. Also, my husband-to-be and I would get together and do a cryptic over lunch — usually the Daily Mail in those days.
Walk us through your compiling strategy I usually sit down with my laptop after breakfast and work through until lunchtime. Having filled the grid, I work through, thinking up clues. First run-through is just putting in some ideas, then I just keep going over them. A sign that I have finished is when I change something and then change it back on the next run-through. When I think I have finished, I check how many anagrams, contained works, charades etc there are, making sure there is a good variety. At the same time, I check that I have not used the same indicators or link words more than once. Sometimes, most often in the summer, I work in my shed. Other times I sit in the spare room, or just on the sofa.
So you think you’re hard My crosswords are at the easiest end of the cryptic crossword difficulty scale. I was recommended to the FT as a setter who could set easier puzzles for the beginning of the week.
The clue you wished you’d written There are far too many to choose from.
And the clue you’re glad you did Again, too many to go through! I like to think my clues are always fair and hope they are enjoyable to do. My puzzles are nearly always pangrams (a sentence using every letter of a given alphabet at least once) so that helps with variety. Personally I like to get to the end of doing a puzzle and feel satisfied that not only have I filled in all the words, but I understand how all the clues work.
What’s the topic of conversation when you come across other compilers? I have not really talked to others about ways of working — it is such a solitary and personal thing, I think, for most. We have talked about different editors and solvers.
Any advice for solvers? You cannot learn to do it by someone just telling you. Practice is the key — just keep doing them and have a look at websites like Fifteensquared or Big Dave’s Crossword Blog — they are great for explaining how the clues work. Do not worry about completing a puzzle — just do as much as you like. Remember, it is supposed to be fun — not an exam or a chore. Solving can be a fun and sociable group activity, too.
And for wannabe compilers? Practice and keep sending puzzles in to editors. I also set for my village magazine and it is worth seeking out local publications that do not have a crossword. They often feel that having a crossword gives them a bit of class. You might have to do it for free at first though!
Your favourite/least favourite other word game I play the Words with Friends app, Wordle and Quordle. There is also a Scrabble Club at my local library. I am up for any word game really (or any other board game), but sometimes find that when people find out I am a setter, they don’t want to play with me!
Zamorca’s latest cryptic crossword, published this weekend, can be found here.