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<i>Harry Potter</i> Sparks Imaginations of Readers, And Fan Fiction Writers - 2003-06-27

The rush to buy "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix," includes millions of readers looking for entertainment, and some looking for inspiration as well. They write what's known as fan fiction, stories that draw on characters and adventures from previously published books, films and television shows. Aspiring authors are spinning their own tales about Harry Potter and the Hogwarts School for Wizards.

Here's an excerpt from a Harry Potter novel you won't find in any bookstore:

"Professor Veronica Stanley made her way quickly through Hogwarts great hall to the staff table. She was a petite woman in her mid thirties with a pleasant face framed by unruly, curly brown hair. The hem of her bright yellow robes was covered in mud. Her pointed hat was slightly askew. And the dilapidated broom she carried had been broken in half."

Those lines are from a story called For the Love of Hufflepuff, written by a San Francisco college student named Christina Teresa. The main character is Severus Snape, the Hogwarts professor with the sinister aura in JK Rowling's best selling novels. But in Christina Teresa's 250 page story, Professor Snape is on his way towards redemption. "He wants to atone for what he's done, and it's very clear that that's the path JK Rowling has set for him. I didn't want to wait until she was done with the books to have that happen. I wanted to go ahead and redeem him on my own," she says.

Christina Teresa got positive responses from around the world when she began posting her story in installments on Sugarquill dot net, one of the most popular Internet sites devoted to Harry Potter fan fiction. The site takes its name from a kind of candy in the Harry Potter stories, and it got its start when two fans, Jennie Levine and Megan Morrison, began writing their own Harry Potter stories. Jennie Levine says that when they went online, they found a huge amount of fan fiction devoted to the boy wizard and his schoolmates.

Levine: "So much so that you had to sift through it to find stuff you liked. So we decided we wanted to start our own web site where we could put our fan fiction and the fan fiction we liked to read and also maybe try to help people to write. If they had a good idea for a Harry Potter story they could come to our site and we would give them suggestions and criticism and all that kind of thing."
Beardsley: "And what is it about doing that kind of writing that will help you learn how to write?"
Levine: "It gives you sort of a back story to work with, so if you've never tried to write before, you don't have to think up all the characters or you don't have to think up the whole setting. You either fill in the blanks or write from another person's point of view or develop it a little bit further. And then the hope is eventually they'll branch off from fan fiction and write their own original fiction."

Jennie Levine says the site has gotten submissions from as far away as India, the Philippines, Brazil and Iceland. Some 1500 works by 600 different authors have been archived on the site, and many more submissions are rejected. What is it about JK Rowling's books that inspires so much fan fiction? "It's a series that isn't complete, so there's lots of room to imagine. But just the world JK Rowling has created is so flexible. If you're writing a story and think to yourself, 'I really want Harry to get to point A and point B,' you start thinking, 'Wait, this is magic. What kind of ideas can I come up with that might be magical?'"

For Sugarquill contributor Maureen Lipsett, the abundance of details in the stories also sparks new plot ideas. "You can take one little detail and write a whole entire story, and so many people have done that," she says. And for Kathy MacMillan, it's the fact that the original stories are told from Harry Potter's point of view, yet he's surrounded by so many other intriguing characters. "My very first story was an offshoot of a discussion. I was arguing with someone else about a certain character's point of view and what was going on that Harry didn't see. And I thought I can express this better if I show you what I mean, so I'll write this story and show you," she says.

Fan fiction has paid tribute to a range of stories over the years, from Jane Austen's classic novels to Star Trek. New York University law professor Rebecca Tushnet says it's a very old form of storytelling. "Before copyright, which didn't exist really till the last 200 years, one of the things people did when they were telling stories was they would tell 'the further adventures of.' Stories about Brer Rabbit, stories about what Odysseus did on his way back from Troyall of those are examples of stories people told about characters they liked, and they wanted to know what happened next," she says.

While copyright laws protect both an artist's original work, and any sequels or adaptations, there's an exception under U.S. law known as fair use. It's applied to stories that transform the original work in ways that tell a new story. But Wendy Seltzer, a staff attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, says fan fiction remains a murky legal area. "The question is whether authors who build upon existing stories and incorporate elements of plot and characters, snippets of dialogue and names from another author's work are infringing the copyright are creating their own new work based on that," she says. "And it's an open question whether these are fair uses of the copyrighted work or copyright infringements."

Some authors and agencies have taken legal action against creators of fan fiction. The British literary agency that represents JK Rowling says she's flattered by fan fiction, as long as it doesn't contain material unsuitable for children. Sugarquill contributor Lisa Campos suggests that paying tribute to Harry Potter's creator is exactly what she's trying to do. "What I personally get out of fan fiction is the feeling of involvement in something I care about so much, when I can't actually walk up to JK Rowling and say, 'This is utterly fantastic and let tell me tell you how big a part it is of my life.'"

Fan fiction writers also say they try to honor the spirit of the original books. Christina Teresa reads and rereads Rowling's stories to make sure she's faithful to the settings and characters. More recently she got another small taste of the world JK Rowling now inhabits. Since being featured in media stories about fan fiction, Christina Teresa has been deluged with E-mails and requests for more interviews. "I am amazed she was able to write the books. I haven't written anything for in two and a half weeks, so I can just imagine what she's going through," she says.

And now Christina Teresa has another big claim on her time. With the publication of the fifth book in the Harry Potter series, she'll find out how closely Professor Snape's fate parallels the destiny she gave him. She'll also be reading to see if the latest intrigue at the Hogwarts School gives her any new story ideas of her own.