It probably took me years to realize when they might strike, but I eventually figured it out. It took a while as my senses weren't really attuned to picking them up. It's kind of like deer hunting, you know, but, like, the real serious deer hunting. The kind that people like Ted Nugent do. The kind where you first put on camouflage head-to-toe, dowse yourself in deer piss and then stalk the animal that's going to be dinner for like hours in the wilderness before eventually using a bow and arrow or a bowie knife or something.
Lest you think I'm a subscriber to “Field and Stream,” I'm trying to use a crappy hunting metaphor to reference when themes for puzzles strike.
(Side tangent: Back when I started helping out behind the scenes at the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, Will Shortz would take time between puzzles to read bios of the judges. In my bio that Will read to the contestants totally straight-faced, I said I wrote puzzles for all the usual places as well as for “Guns and Ammo.” Will pauses for a second and in all seriousness asks aloud in the microphone if that was true, to which I shook my head no. As lame as the joke was, the audience roared with laughter. Henry Rathvon, one of the most genuine and genuinely funny guys in the puzzle biz, later came over and said those puzzles must have been loaded with thematic material.)
So back to when themes strike. One second you're doing something and the next blammo! -- the light goes on in your head that says “wait a minute! This thing that is occurring this very minute can be made into a theme!” I think that moment between brainfart to hey-this-is-a-theme generally lasts no longer than 0.00073 seconds, but from a constructors standpoint that's an eternity.
Say you stumble over your words while you're trying to relay a story and some gasser of a malaprop/pun/offensive joke/mispronounced accent/etc. comes out. The puzzler's mind then goes: “that malaprop/pun/offensive joke/mispronounced accent/etc. is pretty funny, maybe I could push it further by, say, using this other bon mot/fractured aphorism/etc. that kind of works along the same lines but not really. Now is there enough material to extend this idea far enough? I can come up with three more examples, easily; well maybe I shouldn't say easily, but then again there might be enough to extended it to a Sunday-sized gimmick. Ten eleven? I think I'd be happy with just three entires. Wait, I'm having second thoughts about this in the first place. Better just write the idea down and deal with this in the morning.” That whole thought processes lasted 0.023 seconds, and it's usually at this point I'm grabbing my moleskine to write down the germ of the idea.
I have written down more half-baked could-be-or-they-might-not-be themes than I wish to mention. In fact, I could double my output of blog puzzles built entirely around half-baked ideas. (Some of you might think that's the case with this blog already -- Trip, STFU!) The point is, the brainfarts, fully formed or not, happen to me all the time. You see, my brain isn't really connected to my mouth. It's working so fast my tongue cannot keep up. I butcher the English language all the time. I can start a sentence, change topics before I get to the verb, and then, reach my own conclusion and start the next totally unrelated thought before I get to the direct object. This is why (a) I drink heavily to try and slow the brain down and (b) people look at me like “whhaaaaaht?” whenever I pontificate.
So, if you see me babbling incoherently (possibly drunkenly), don't mind me. I'm busy at work coming up with the next puzzle.