I've lost count the number of times I've either felt worried that somebody else had come with the same theme of the puzzle I was making. Or, for that matter, lost count the number of times I've said “God damn, I wished I had thought of that one” (see Patrick Berry's life work). Or, even worse, I've lost count of coming up with something on my own that I thought was brand new, yet was already old hat.
Classic example: Some six years ago, I stumbled upon the name VIDKUN QUISLING and thought he'd make for an interesting start for a themeless. But, seeing as his name is 14 letters long, it's not the most ideal entry. A few minutes later I noticed that BENEDICT ARNOLD was not only 14 letters long, but also a traitor. JUDAS ISCARIOT came later and that was enough for a three traitors puzzle. A short while after the puzzle ran, I had some beers with Matt Gaffney who casually told me he'd come up with that exact same theme some 10 years earlier. I had always joked with Matt that I ripped off his style when I started out; in this instance I literally ripped him off.
Puzzlemakers coming up with virtually the same theme is a fairly common occurrence. Due to the stringent rules for puzzlemaking, it's inevitable that similarities (or inadvertent duplications!) will arise. In the instance of the traitors puzzle, there aren't any other 14 letter traitors to balance out Vidkun, so if I was going down that route, I was pretty much stuck with the entries outlined above.
Sun editor Peter Gordon would flat out reject any puzzle if the theme was even remotely similar to anything that was published before. Even if you took the gimmick but managed to find a new twist on it, he'd pass. When puzzle God Merl Reagle comes up with a theme he says he “cooks” it. That is to say, he thoroughly exhausts every option that could be applied to the theme, so that if anyone else tries that gimmick, they're guaranteed to copy at least one entry. Both of those approaches are no mean feats.
Anyway, this puzzle isn't winning awards for being a brand spanking new theme. Nor will anybody who solves it say “God damn, I wished I had thought of that one.” It was just a quirky puzzle that needed a home. Enjoy it, and new one on Friday.
(Oh, and speaking of Friday, The Boston Typewriter Orchestra is playing at AS220 in Providence. Stalkers, take notice!)