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Sugarquill next best thing to Quidditch

The Web site focuses on 'fan fiction' inspired by Harry Potter and the gang at Hogwarts.

August 02, 2003|Makeba Scott Hunter | Baltimore Sun

BALTIMORE — If you ask, University of Maryland archivist Jennie Levine will flat out tell you: Before she met Megan Morrison, she was in the closet. She sneaked around and used others to hide her little secret.

She kept the low profile because, like millions of other post-adolescents, she was ashamed to publicly 'fess up to the fact: She was a Harry Potter fan.

"I got it from my boyfriend's niece," Levine, 31, said of "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone," the first book in the wildly popular children's series chronicling the adventures of a boy-wizard. "It was great."

But after Levine met New York City receptionist Morrison in an online Jane Austen discussion forum, it would be only a matter of time before she officially came out of the proverbial broom closet to emerge, with Morrison, as the best thing to happen to Harry Potter fans since Quidditch. Together, the two created Sugarquill.net, an online site focusing on writings by fans inspired by author J.K. Rowling's Potter books.

Potter mania may have cooled a bit in the weeks since the latest book, "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix," was released June 21 to great fanfare; it sold more than 5 million copies during the first 24 hours and already is in its third printing.

But the popularity of Harry Potter "fan fiction," which has skyrocketed over the last few years, is unabated. Hundreds of Web sites dedicated to Harry and friends have popped up, resulting in hundreds of thousands of colorful, off-beat, sexy, funny, sad and, sometimes, rather crude variations on the Rowling tales. ESPN has been a sport, publishing a story titled "Harry Potter and the Corked Broom" on its Web site, a play on baseball slugger Sammy Sosa's travails.

Levine and Morrison's site had its origins in their early online conversations. Both were reading the fourth book in the series, "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire," and they decided to compare notes over tea.

The fan club of two met on a mid-December afternoon in 2000 and brainstormed several ways to express their passion for wiz-kid Potter and the gang from Hogwarts School before it hit them: Create a Web site.

"We thought it would be this fun little thing we did," said Levine, who focused on the technical aspects of the site while Morrison worked on content.

Three weeks later, Sugarquill.net, named after a favorite candy in the books, went live. It quickly became a cult favorite among serious Harry Potter fans, swelling from 30 members at its launch on Jan. 5, 2001, to more than 3,000 today.

Maureen Lipsett, a 32-year-old teacher from Wilmington, Del., said stumbling upon the Sugar Quill site was a revelation. "There were people out there who saw the books the way I did," she said. "It's intelligent, thoughtful discussion without any bastardizing of the brilliant story written by J.K. Rowling."

In addition to providing Harry Potter discussion forums, Levine and Morrison, 27, who now lives in Baltimore and heads the drama department at Camp Airy in Catoctin, Md., also wanted to experiment with a new concept they had seen on other literary Web sites: fan fiction, a genre of storytelling that relies on the characters and settings from an existing work as the basis of an original story.

Fanfiction.net, one of the largest online archives of fan fiction, has posted stories evolving out of a variety of sources, from novels such as "Gone With the Wind" to TV shows such as "The Gilmore Girls" and films such as "The Matrix."

"It's the kind of thing you do in your head when you're reading a book. I had never thought to write it down," Levine said. "Then we saw all these people who had."

Inspired, Morrison began rewriting Harry Potter scenes from the perspective of too-smart-for-her-own-good Hermione, one of Harry's sidekicks, thus kicking off the Sugar Quill fan fiction archive.

Based on their experiences at other fan fiction sites, Levine and Morrison decided to place some guidelines on the types of stories they would post. They wanted tasteful, well-written stories that stayed within the spirit of Rowling's books.

No X-rated stories about Harry hooking up with Hermione, and above all else, no sloppy copy filled with typos, misspellings or grammatical errors.

"The main intention with our fan fiction archive is to have something that if J.K. Rowling saw it, she wouldn't run away screaming," Levine said.

To achieve that goal -- and provide a service to their members -- Levine and Morrison assign an editor, or "professor," as they are known on the site, to every fan fiction author to help them polish their stories.

Once a month, after stories are edited and approved, they are submitted for inclusion in the archive. Levine, Morrison and their team of professors pick the best stories and post them.

Today, the Sugar Quill archive houses more than 1,500 stories ranging in topic from the background of favorite characters to "missing" scenes to scenes told from another character's perspective. There even is a story about Rowling's characters, like their fans, impatiently waiting for the release of "Order of the Phoenix."

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Makeba Scott Hunter is a reporter at the Baltimore Sun, a Tribune company.

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