The web of magic
When two grown-up fans of the Harry Potter series put their heads together, they
create a little magic of their own: Sugarquill.net.
By Makeba Scott Hunter
Originally published July 30, 2003
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 in order 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, says of Harry Potter
and the Sorcerer's Stone, the first book in the wildly popular children's series
chronicling the adventures of an exceptional boy-wizard. "It was great."
But after Levine met New York City receptionist Morrison in an online Jane
Austen discussion forum, it would only be 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 fan 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 to great fanfare June 21;
it sold more than 5 million copies during the first 24 hours and is already
in a third printing.
But the popularity of Harry Potter "fan fiction," which has skyrocketed
over the past few years, is unabated. Hundreds of Web sites dedicated exclusively
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 even been a sport, publishing a story entitled, "Harry
Potter and the Corked Broom," on its Web site, a play on baseball slugger
Sammy Sosa's recent travails.
Levine and Morrison's site had its origins in their early online conversations.
At the time, 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 Hogwart's
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 middle-school 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 says. "It's
intelligent, thoughtful discussion without any bastardizing of the brilliant
story written by J.K. Rowling.
"I believe my first words were, 'I've finally come home,' " she recalls.
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, 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 like Gone With the
Wind and To Kill a Mockingbird to TV shows like the Gilmore Girls and films
like 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," said Levine. "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
No X-rated stories or silly ideas about Harry hooking up with Hermione, and
above all else, no sloppy copy filled with typos, misspellings or grammatical
"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," said Levine.
To achieve that goal - and provide a unique service to their members - Levine
and Morrison fashioned an editing process that assigns an editor, or "professor,"
as they are known on the site, to every fan-fiction author to help them polish
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 is even a story about
Rowling's characters, like their fans, impatiently waiting for the release of
Order of the Phoenix during a seemingly endless summer.
"Sugar Quill has really helped me improve as a writer," said Kathy
MacMillan, a Sugar Quill professor and Ellicott City native who works for the
Maryland School for the Deaf. "Writing and discussing fan fiction has given
me the confidence to try my hand at original writing."
In addition to molding young and budding authors, Levine and Morrison wanted
to promote a genuine sense of community at Sugar Quill. To wit, members are
given unique "Quiller" names upon membership into the site. For instance,
Levine goes by Zsenya; Morrison's nom de site is Arabella.
Furthermore, the Sugar Quill glossary provides a list of words and terms unique
to the site: "Quillyness" is that certain something special about
Sugar Quill; "ROX" is a term reserved for really cool things; "Weasley-Red"
is the color of an embarrassed face; and "Out" means being completely
open about one's Harry Potter obsession.
One of the most popular features on the site is the Meetings and Summits forum,
where members from across the nation and around the world post invitations for
Quiller gatherings to discuss and/or read the books or simply to find like company,
and maybe "chill with a Quill."
According to the message board, Quillers are planning get-togethers in the
Baltimore-Washington area, as well as in Montana, Georgia and California and
as far away as Singapore, Australia, the Philippines, England and South Africa.
"The most brilliant thing about this Web site is that I've met the most
amazing people," said Lipsett, who recently got together with eight other
Quillers from the Baltimore area to read Order of the Phoenix.
"It was one of the best things I've ever done," she said. "It's
great to be able to scream out something, that to anyone else would be complete
nonsense, and have the person next to you know exactly what you are talking
Levine and Morrison say their site costs about $85 a month to operate and maintain
and is funded primarily through donations. But if the donations fall short,
Levine, who works at College Park, says she doesn't mind paying from her own
pocket, because the rewards are so great.
"It's the sense that you've created something that people depend on for
their happiness," she said. "If the site goes down, I get, like, a
The toughest part of being the head Quiller? "When we get 130 new story
submissions and can only accept 40. It's a little bit depressing. We know we
can't be everything to everyone, but we aim to please, and when you get too
big, it's harder to do that."
Nevertheless, Sugar Quill's popularity continues to grow, and whether their
visitors are in or "Out," Morrison says, "People take some pride
in being a Quiller."
"I think it's so cool that anyone's interested in it at all. I'm still
sort of giddy," she said. "We figured we'd make a place that we enjoy
and, whoever wants to play in our playground, great. ... We had no idea."