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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
Sun Staff
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 books.

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 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," 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 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 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 about."

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 hundred e-mails."

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."

The Sugar Quill was created by Zsenya and Arabella. For questions, please send us an Owl!

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