MATERIALS & METHODS (not a chapter)
Being a scientist I always feel compelled to add a Materials & Methods section to my fics (or at least, my longer fics), so here goes! It's just some notes about where the ideas came from, in case anybody's interested.
edit: omg I can't believe I forgot to say this first off: Thanks to my awesome beta Monijune! For her super-helpful edits, lightning-quick turnarounds, wonderful support and general all-around awesomeness. :)
THE IDEA - Into The Fire sprang out of an epic fic idea I had after the S8 finale, the finale where the angels fell from Heaven and Castiel was stripped of his grace and sent to Earth by Metatron. I had a whole story idea then of human-Cas searching out Sam & Dean (Sam still being in the hospital with Trials Sickness), and Dean still being pissed at Cas; and they'd have a falling out culminating with Dean accidentally killing him and then being wracked with grief and guilt. This story appealed to me greatly because, as you all know, I am a hopeless Cas-Angst-Addict and Guilty-Dean-Addict.
And then I got really taken with the idea that somehow Cas's death would set in motion a journey that would culminate in not only finding Cas again and seeing his true form, but also ultimately solving the biggest mystery in Supernatural: Where's God, and why did he disappear? Basically I wanted to devise a story that started very focused and personal, and went huge; a story where Cas's death would set in motion the biggest journey of all. Something that eventually went far beyond Earth to a scale that encompassed the entire universe.
It wasn't till S11 rolled around with the Darkness that I saw a way to make this work, with the Darkness being not only the root cause of Cas's death but also the root cause behind God's disappearance. It was a huge challenge to write it though because the fic does a drastic change in tone & genre partway through, from an introspective emotional journey of grief to a very plotty, external, epic journey (essentially a road trip, but flying) over a huge landscape. I wasn't at all sure I could pull it off, and still am not sure that I did, but it was such a great challenge to take on.
WHY HAVE DEAN KILL CAS? - There's many ways Castiel could have died, and many ways he could have been separated from the boys and sent to the surface of the Sun. I can't exactly pin down why it seemed to me that it had to happen in such a horrible, horrible way... it just did. It had to tear Dean apart; it had to gut him, it had to take him back to his worst memories of being in Hell and take all his guilt and magnify it. So... Cas had to die at Dean's hand, by torture.
One element that I never managed to fit into the fic was Cas's experience of the death. He talks about it a little in the last chapter, but one thing that didn't fit was him describing the moment of his death. The truth is that Castiel actually had a moment of real peace at the very end, when he woke up to find himself dying in Dean's arms. He knew then that Dean had survived. He also realized that he had managed to last long enough to save Sam's life. At the very end he was thinking how much he loved Dean, and he thought: "I always knew I was going to die someday, but I never dreamed I would be lucky enough to get to die in Dean's arms."
DEAN'S GRIEF - Many of you noticed Dean going through the stages of grief and asked if I was taking him through the classic stages. My own experience has actually been that those "stages" don't always play out as they are supposed to, and that often you keep circling back to some of the earlier stages, sometimes bouncing all the way back to stage 1. It can be repeatedly cyclical. And someimtes it never does resolve; sometimes the acceptance never comes. So... it occurred to me that when grieving for someone who actually HAS resurrected before, it would be almost impossible to get out of this cycle of endless grief, because you'd never fully be able to give up hope and accept it. I thought it would be interesting (ok, in a sadistic way) to explore what the grieving process would be like then.
MULTIPLE DIMENSIONS - My favorite headcanon for where Cas's wings are, and how he flies, and how he disappears, has always centered on the wings being "next door" in an adjacent dimension. It just makes sense given the way he disappears. While writing Flight I put that together with two other elements, (a) angels being "hot" in some way such that they can burn people's eyes out, and (b) ghosts being "cold", and came up with the idea that there is a temperature gradient across at least 3 dimensions. In Flight I called these 3 dimensions the "etheric" dimension (hotter, where Cas keeps his wings, full of Heavenly power), the "earthly" dimension (where we are), and the "ghostly" dimension (colder, where ghosts are; aka "the veil"). While plotting out Into The Fire I began to toy with the idea of expanding this to many more dimensions. My influences here include a brilliant little book about "the fourth dimension" that I read way back in high school, and also Zelazny's classic old "Nine Princes in Amber" series (involving princes who can step across dimensions), and more recently the "Long Earth" books that involve many different versions of Earth that are all side-by-side in an endless series of neighboring dimensions. Pullman's His Dark Materials has a similar concept top. I looooove stuff like this! Around when I was reading through some of those multi-dimension stories, NASA started coming with hints of water on Mars and I got to thinking "What if Mars is habitable in a neighboring dimension" and boom, it came together:
HEAVEN IS THE SUN - It started here. I've long wanted to give Heaven a physical location but kept running into the problem that there's not enough "sky" above the Earth for Heaven to be parked right above the Earth in the clouds the way it's usually envisioned. Also, Supernatural's idea of millions of individual little Heaven-lets, one per soul, seems to demand an extremely large location. One can of course envision all the Heaven-lets overlapping somehow, or being very tiny or folded into pocket dimensions or being purely metaphysical or something, but I started to like the idea of Heaven being somewhere that is quite literally a vast physical space. But I kept coming back to how Heavenly power sometimes seems to stream down from the sky and how the angels fell from the skuy, and kept thinking "Heaven should be up there in the sky somehow... just... farther away... Farther away than the clouds. What's farther away than the clouds?" One day I was thinking about how many human cultures have thought the sun itself was a god. Apollo, Ra. It came to me: What if Heaven itself is the actual sun? With the heaven-lets and the angels in a nearby dimension where the sun is more habitable?
HELL IS JUPITER - As soon as I thought of the Sun as Heaven, POW, it was suddenly so obvious that Hell could then be Jupiter! And then, POW, obviously the Great Red Spot is the Gate to Hell. Piece by piece fell into place. The Sun is in one direction from Earth, Jupiter in the other - perfect for Heaven and Hell. Jupiter is the biggest planet and the only one that can challenge the sun for dominance, and the only one of planets that ever had a serious chance of igniting and becoming its own star - again, perfect for Hell. Mars (between Earth and Jupiter) is then perfectly situated to be Purgatory. Then obviously the asteroid belt (between Mars and Jupiter) is the River Styx!
I began dropping paired references into the fic, always pairing a mention of Heaven or Hell with a corresponding NASA announcement. Hannah says the Darkness is attacking the Sun, and NASA says there are a lot of sunspots on the Sun. Later, Hannah mentions the Darkness has been "confined to the interior of Heaven", and right after that there's another NASA announcement that "the sun has gone blank" and all the sunspots have disappeared. Crowley mentions that the River Styx is draining, and in that same chapter there's a NASA announcement that the asteroids in the asteroid belt are starting to vanish; Crowley says the Gate of Hell is collapsing and NASA says the Great Red Spot is shrinking. (Side note: The Great Red Spot actually IS shrinking, and the sunspot cycle has gone really wonky recently.) Finally, all the little mini-realms like Oz and Faerie, which had always kind of bothered me about Superantural's cosmos (they don't seem to fit well into the Heaven-Hell mythos) can then be assigned to various little moons and asteroids. This gives a lot of room for interesting little mini-realms without challenging the dominance of Heaven. I won't go further into my mapping of realms onto planets because it's a relatively minor part of the fic, but imagine my delight this week when the discovery of a new Planet X was announced! :)
SOULS AS POWER: An element that is also skipped over in the fic rather rapidly, but that I love, is that Heaven and Hell fight over human souls not from any sense of rightness or justice, but simply because souls provide power. Nuclear fusion, specifically.
CLUES TO CAS BEING ON HEAVEN - The Heaven=Sun, and the Crown=Corona, ideas were established in my mind very early on and there are a lot of clues dropped about this. Particularly, every time Dean has one of his strange dreams, he sees "loops in the sky". These are solar flares. Also sky is always "glowing," there is never any sun visible in the sky, the ground often seems to be glowing. Even the silver grasses ripple and shine "almost like flames" (they actually are flames, in a nearby dimension). Finally Dean constantly gets confused about the distance to the horizon - seeing endless ranks of mountains that seem to go infinitely far away. (The mountains are really waves of superheated plasma, in a nearby dimension). This holds true even for the strangest dream he has, the one where Castiel hands him two red tulips in the warehouse; even then, the warehouse is covered with jumbled pallets that are "almost like an endless series of mountain ranges", there are "loops" of dust in the air again and a sensation of being a vast space. Those themes are hit over and over again to try to convey idea that Dean's dreams are taking him some vast, somewhere that glows, somewhere that has literal "loops" overhead... the Sun.
THE ORISHAS - I won't say too much about this other than to mention I've spent a lot of time in Brazil and for several years I played candomble music for candomble dancers (dances derived from ceremonies where people become possessed by the orishas). There is something incredibly powerful there. It's not that I literally believe it, exactly, but there is something there; an air of antiquity, alien-ness and prehistoric power in those rhythms and dances. It is something that has to be felt firsthand. I include the orishas in this fic in order to try to honor both them and the Brazilian culture that helps keep them alive.
ANGELS AS DRAGONS - I was captivated when Castiel dropped that comment one day about his true form being "the size of the Chrysler building." Immediately I couldn't stop thinking about what his true form might really be. I have many different ideas about this, but in this fic I decided to go for a form that is quite physical and literal, that literally has feathered wings. (and similarly I decided to stay with, and further develop, all the angel-wings headcanon from Flight, including another appearance of good ol' Schmidt-Nielsen.)
Separately from my SPN life I've been toying with the idea of feathered dragons - because, the discovery that most dinosaurs were feathered seems to demand that we fantasy readers should consider the idea that dragons might have feathers too, doesn't it? I've been following the discoveries of the feathered dinosaurs in the paleontology literature, and more and more it looks like even good ol' T rex might have been feathered. (I put this in the tapestry!) So one day I started picturing an enormous dragon the size of the Chrysler Building, who is FEATHERED just like the angel wings we've seen on the show, just larger... who shoots out holy fire. With silver claws that could be carved into angel-blades... and there you go, angels as dragons! Then that clicked into place with all sorts of ancient legends about gigantic flying creatures - dragons, griffins, rocs, even the sphinx. My original conception was really something a bit closer to griffins, especially since they have such a lore of being guardians of the divine, but people are so familiar with dragons that I eventually had Sam & Dean latch onto the word "dragon" throughout.
I had a long struggle about whether Cas was going to have an eagle beak like a griffin, or soft muzzle like Toothless (from "How To Train Your Dragon.") I compromisd and he ended up with a beak-like egg-tooth when he was a baby that later fell off; in his adult form he has a soft, strokeable velvety muzzle. The better to lick Dean with. :) His "glittering" eyes were somewhat influenced by Robin Hobb's "Rain Wilds" dragon series, in which dragons have magical-looking eyes that can hypnotize people. And I loved the idea that angels select human clothing to match their natural plumage coloration. :)
I struggled with Cas's size, though; in early drafts of this fic I was fixated on the fact that Castiel had to be the size of the Chrysler Building, but this ended up with Castiel being almost a quarter-mile long and Dean and Sam just bitty little specks on his back. But this made it very difficult to have intimate moments between Cas & the boys. Eventually I landed on the idea that angels grow as they age, so that an angel who has been "reborn" on the surface of the Sun starts all over again, very small. This brought Cas down to a manageable size, while also allowing more ancient angels like Gog and Magog to be terrifyingly huge.
CAS'S SONGS - I've always loved the idea that Cas would turn out to be musical but that rather than liking Dean's brand of classic rock, he would gravitate toward old folk songs - songs that Dean at first thinks are hokey and later comes to love. I play a lot of folk music myself. Folk songs are undeniably sort of cheesy and old-fashioned yet none heless they have their own deep wisdom, and a sense of timelessness, and a real beauty. That blend of naivete + wisdom just screams "Castiel" to me! For his songs I drew on a list of 100 classic American folk songs that I found online, and scanned the whole list for any songs that had elements of flight, wings, or Heaven. "Puff the Magic Dragon" jumped out instantly, of course, and that became one of the main thematic elements of the fic.
Re Dean playing guitar: In this fic he is a complete beginner. Someone pointed out in a comment that Dean was already shown to play guitar (back in one of the Ben & Lisa episodes) but I am cheerfully ignoring that and decided that he must have been pretty bad at it in that episode. Jensen Ackles long ago decided that canon-Dean should be a poor singer (Jensen always has Dean sing slightly off key - which is surprisingly hard to do on purpose, so kudos to Jensen). Kind of to go along with that, I really like the idea of Dean being much, MUCH less good on guitar than Jensen, too!
THE TITLE - The title has several meanings. The first layer had to do, pretty obviously, with Dean going into a sort of hell of grief and guilt - the fire of despair, a new hell all over again for him. But it had a literal meaning as well, that the boys would be walking literally into the fire of the Sun. Through the Fire Gate and right into the fire of the corona (though, safely, in another dimension). When they are walking through the silver grasses they are walking through actual flames. And third of course, there's the terrible fire of the celestial dragons too. Throughout the fic fire is a constant theme.
THE MARK OF CAIN AS A TEMPORARY STOPGAP - So there's a weird flaw in canon in that God seems to have put a critically important lock, all that is keeping the Darkness confined, into the form of a simple tattoo that is removable by a witch. (A strong witch, granted, but still.) This seems like a really big oversight on the part of God. It only made sense to me if I consider it as just a temporary quick fix that ended up lasting way longer than it was originally designed to do. When considered in this light a couple things become apparent: (1) something went wrong with God while he was making the permanent fix; (2) This could in fact end up being one reason why Lucifer went so far down the dark side - maybe he was carrying the Mark far, far longer than God meant him to. Finally I stumbled across the idea that, if the Mark was a "lock," maybe God was making a better "lock" and accidentally locked himself up.
THE DARKNESS KEEPING CAS AND DEAN APART - Later I re-cast the God-stuck-in-a-box problem in terms of "only an angel+human combo team can free God". If you look close at this idea you will discover that the entire point of the evolution of humans was to get some humans who would team up with an angel and go free God... yes, Sam and Dean were the entire purpose of a quarter billion years of evolution on Earth, lol.
Also the idea popped into my head that the Darkness may in fact have been trying to keep Cas & Dean (& Sam too) apart for quite a long time simply as a form of self-preservation. This would certainly explain why Cas & Dean's relationship got so distant during S10 when Dean was actually carrying the Mark. One can imagine scenarios where the Darkness was influencing Dean long before that, all the way back to S4, subtly pushing him and Castiel apart from each other, for years. Yeah, it's super hokey, I know ("they're DESTINED to be together but a malevolent force is pushing them apart!") but I love it. And it helps me make peace with canon. :)
THE THRONE ROOM: So there's a grand old Twilight Zone episode where a person accidentally goes "backstage" and sees Creation being all moved around and set up. A great cult movie called "Dark City" explores the same concept. Lev Grossman's "The Magicians" series (which, heads-up, is now a tv show run by Supernatural's Sera Gamble) has an incredible glimpse of a "behind Creation" place; so does Philip Pullman's "His Dark Materials" series. All of these things were percolating around in my head when I was thinking about taking the fic to "find God." Pretty early on I envisioned the backstage area as being like the back side of an embroidered tapestry. This particular image actually came to me from a demonstration I saw ages ago, at the Boston Museum of Science some 35 years ago, of a traditional Chinese method of making extraordinarily detailed tapestries. The tapestry-maker was weaving all these bewildering little patterns that lookd like nothing at all, in this big loom, and then she flipped it over and VOILA, it was a gorgeous piece of art all done in gleaming fine silk colored threads. I was totally entranced! I sat there for like a half an hour just watching her weave this amazing silk tapestry. So that's where God's throne room came from, from a Chinese silk weaver. :)
The only thing I hadn't decided was what the threads were, specifically. Souls? Stars? Solar systems? Then I thought of the famous Hubble Space Telescope "Deep Field" image, when NASA focused the telescope on an apparently empty patch of sky for a long time, long enough to capture even the faintest, rarest photons. Google "Hubble Deep Field" to see the result... a seemingly infinite array of galaxies, as far off into space as we can see. (Puts things in perspective. Seriously.) Once I remembered that image, it was clear the threads were galaxies.
By the way, when dragon-Cas is scrabbling his way out of the galaxy thread and kicks the little "minnows" every which way, those minnows were actually solar systems (the elongated "minnow" appearance was the streak of the solar system moving around, over time, through the galaxy). He actually did some significant damage to an entire arm of the Milky Way galaxy. However, he did that four billion years in the future, so he's got plenty of time to figure out a way to correct the damage. :)
GOD LOCKING HIMSELF IN A BOX - There are a lot of old heresies that involve God either being crazy or simply being an imperfect creator, one who makes mistakes. In the SPN unvierse, the disappearance of God has never fully been explained. There's clearly merit to the Chuck-is-God idea (which we know that Kripke planned, but which has not [yet?] actually been made canon)... yet... to me, something in the Chuck-as-God idea still seems incomplete. There has to be more to the story. Chuck-as-God results in a God who is either quite incompetent, or quite capricious (apparently playing chess with his helpless little pawns just for his own amusement). I eventually grew fond of an idea that Chuck is a partial God, or an unaware God, a God whose memories have been blocked somehow, and who isn't quite clear on what he is trying to accomplish. Eventually this all dovetailed into idea in which there are little God-fragments wandering around, one of whom is Chuck, while God himself (most of God, at least) is stuck somewhere.
God actually ended up much more benevolent than I was originally planning, fond of his Creation and the "bunny rabbits" that invaded his Mona Lisa. I was originally thinking he'd be more standoff-ish and distant, unconcerned with humanity, but he turned out to be pretty friendly, didn't he?
BTW God's emergence from the box is based on an amazing contortionist I once saw at Halloween night rave in Seattle one year long ago.
God makes one stray comment btw: "Imagine you're in jail and you're bored..." This was significant. God was actually sent to this universe as a form of punishment or confinement, by his own kind. What his crime was, I haven't figured out; where he came from is also not clear to me; I just know that our universe is his jail cell. Maybe it was an unjust imprisonment; I'm not sure.
TWO TIMES OF SIGNIFICANC - 1. God's iPad has not been backed up for 542 million years because that was the time of the Cambrian explosion, and after that he got so busy with his new multicellular life forms that he forgot to back up. 2. God mentions he was locked up for quarter billion years. A quarter billion years ago, 252 million years ago to be exact, was the end-Permian extinction, the worst mass extinction that has ever happened on our planet and one that nearly extinguished life on Earth. My thinking here was that prior to the end-Permian, God had been steering evolution on Earth personally, and when he suddenly disappeared life on Earth was not yet self-sufficient. The atmosphere on Earth went haywire as soon as he disappeared and life nearly ended. Then the archangels stepped in and rescued everything, and they've been semi-steering things since then. Only the archangels knew that God had disappeared.
CASTIEL AS A DEMOTED ARCHANGEL - please, show, please make this come true! It fits so perfectly, in so many ways!
LAST LINES & SYMMETRY - Those who've been in my silly fic world with me for a while will know that I often have a last line in mind before I even start writing. When starting Forgotten I already knew the last line would be "Castiel smiled," and when starting Room Of One's Own" I already the last phrase would be "a room of their own" (THEIR own now, not ONE'S own, get it get it, oooo so significant! lol). In this fic I knew the last line would be "This is not the end of the story. This is just the beginning," and that the last chapter would be titled "The Beginning." So then obviously the first chapter had to be "The End." For symmetry, y'know. :)
There's a lot of stuff I know I'm forgetting, but that's some of it.
And one last personal update: During the writing of this fic my personal and professional life imploded, and (not coincidentally) my health went to hell too. This will always be, for me, the fic that I wrote when I thought I might be dying (4 different cancer scares, an ulcer, an aneurysm and some terrifying chronic migraines that sent me to urgent care clinics several times - count up the stress-related disorders, just count 'em!) I was trapped in a sticky situation at work with a hell boss and a weirdly toxic environment. By the time I was 2/3 through the fic I had realized I needed a major change. I challenged my boss, she went ballistic and took me to HR and raked me over the coals, HR sided with me, she started playing extraordinary mind games (she's married to a VP at the same institution). To my relief all my professional colleagues sided with me and about a dozen of them even offered me jobs, which at least made me feel I hadn't gone totally insane, but all in all it was the worst thing I've been through in my life. Anyway by the end of the fic I'd given notice at my job.
I'm happy to report I've finally left that job (had to stay several months to wrap up research projects). Yesterday was my last day.
Originally I was going to try to jump directly to full-time writing, but financial practicalities, plus some very cool (& possibly important) science opportunities, have made me decide to keep going with the science for a few years longer. So I found a great new job, in a beautiful mountain town in the West! I've rented a cute little house, I'm packing up all my stuff this week, I ship the boxes today and in 4 more weeks I drive cross-country to my new home. So... it's all turning out well, but... I had thought I was settled. I don't have any family and tbh it can be hard to do moves like this alone, especially at my age (I am older). I have to confess that feeling connected to all of you has made it a lot easier. When you guys send in comments I feel like I have a little cheering section, and it means so much to me.
Anyway I'm determined to keep writing, alongside the science. I've got an original fantasy series in progress that I really am going to try to finish - probably to be self-pubbed in the next year or two. :)
Thanks so much for all your support. It means more than you know.