Meet 2018 Golden Heart Finalists Eileen Emerson and D. Murphy Ryan!

What a treat here for our second-to-last interview with the Golden Heart class of 2018: today we’re welcoming TWO Persisters, D. Murphy Ryan and Eileen Emerson!

D. Murphy Ryan, also known as Dawn, is a finalist in Contemporary Romance Short with OUT OF THE SHADOWS, and Eileen is a finalist in Historical Romance with AN UNLOVED EARL.

D. Murphy Ryan has lived a life in chapters: as a waitress, a nanny, a photographer’s assistant, a singer and performer, and as a healthcare professional.  But author is the fulfillment of a lifelong dream.  Writing since she was eight, she has a vast array of stories she’s eager to share as she moves onto the next chapter of her storied life.




Eileen Emerson spent years getting a Master’s degree in costume design for the theatre, and then chucked it all to make her way in the world of Corporate America. She eventually turned her creative focus to writing and began submitting her work to the contest circuit, with excellent results. She is now a three-time Golden Heart finalist and is zeroing in on publication.


We’re sitting down to chat in the Writing Room of Eileen’s newly renovated Victorian house, which she’s named Valhalla. Dawn and Eileen will be telling you about their books in the course of our conversation, so let’s jump right in!

FYI, Dawn and Eileen met last year when Dawn joined Valley Forge Romance Writers, of which Eileen is President.

And fair warning: Eileen is also Elisa’s real life sister, so the conversation gets a wee bit personal as we go along. Also, there was waaaaay more giggling and raunchy humor than the final transcript implies. (We talked for 45 minutes!! I had to cut something!!!!)

And one more thing: at one point we got so caught up talking about the possible elimination of the Golden Heart Contest, I decided halfway through the conversation to split that part of the interview off into a separate blog that will post tomorrow. IF YOU’VE GOT STRONG FEELINGS ABOUT THE VALUE OF THE GOLDEN HEART, PLEASE JOIN US AGAIN TOMORROW, AND TELL YOUR FRIENDS!!

Elisa’s questions are in maroon, and Eileen’s answers are in black, and Dawn’s are in blue. 

Off we go…


Great to see you both together!! This should be a pretty wild ride with all three of us talking at once. But we’ll start with Dawn, since this is her first Golden Heart nomination. Tell us what it was like getting that phone call!

Dawn: It didn’t feel real at all. It was 8:30 in the morning, and I didn’t recognize the phone number and I was foggy enough that I didn’t clue in on what date it was. So it went to voice mail. And on the voice mail Carol Ritter said, “It’s really good news! You want to call me back!” So I called back immediately. I think I was the first person to post my news on the Ruby site because Eileen told me to!

Yes! I remember! That was absolutely the right thing to do, and I was so excited typing your name! So remind us now: what’s your category and the title of your GH book?

The book is OUT OF THE SHADOWS. It’s in the Contemporary Short category—which it made by the hair of its chinny chin chin because it was almost too long.

But you made it!! So how long have you been writing? Is this a long-running obsession, or something new?

Dawn: This is a life-long dream. I’ve been writing stories ever since I could put a pen to paper, but I’ve never done anything with it until this past year. Though I have a wealth of material in the backlog I’m digging out—I’ve got four active manuscripts, and I’ve got another six or seven that are mostly finished, in editing mode.

Are they all romance?

Dawn: Almost entirely Romance, because I love the positivity. I love the redeeming quality of Romance. I was writing a story in which really and truly the woman just died because she had a brain tumor, and….no. Just no. No romance reader wants to have the heroine die. Terms of Endearment is one of the worst movies ever because I cry every single time. Every. Single. Time.

Eileen (laughing): I’m reading Gwen Hayes’s Romancing the Beat right now, and I love the phrase she uses, which is that the protagonists go from “hole heart” to “whole heart.” And that’s what we go for as romance writers: the promise that this is going to end well. You’re not going to be disappointed in the end. How many books have I read that have been wallbangers—like Villette. [Spoiler alert, 19th century fiction fans!!! Skip to the next paragraph if you haven’t yet read Villette and you want to!!!] I love Charlotte Bronte, but Villette was a wallbanger for me because I bought in, I engaged, I was connected, and then they just freakin’ died. Or their lives were horrendous. With Romance, I go in knowing they’re going to go through hell, but they’re going to end happy.

Dawn: In OUT OF THE SHADOWS one of my main characters has been catastrophically burned in a car accident. He’s lost an eye. He’s horrifying to look at.

Like Mr. Rochester! A much more romantic Bronte ending!

Dawn: He’s struggling to find his place in the world again. And he intervenes in an attempted assault on the heroine and is forced out of the shadows. That’s where the title comes from.

That sounds intense! God, I love a wounded hero!

Eileen: Dawn’s author log-line, which is so good, is “Love Despite the Scars.”

Oh, I love it!!

Eileen: It’s true of all her characters. Her core story is that, whether they have inner scars or external scars, these people are still worthy of being loved and can give love.

Where do you think that comes from, Dawn, if that’s not too personal a question?

Dawn: Honestly, I grew up in a house that was very dysfunctional. We were decent Catholics, but there was a hell of a lot of alcohol, lots of abuse of various sorts. Some of my family came through it okay, some of my family definitely did not. I had a step-brother who passed away of drug addiction. In my childhood, I also witnessed what was going on in my neighborhood, which was not very affluent. You see a lot in those situations, a lot of struggle. But people have a choice. You either deal with it and move on, or you wallow. In my books, I like to take people who are stuck, who wallow, and help them move out of it, get unstuck. It’s fun. And…I also love to torture men!

[much cackling all around]

Good hobby! Good hobby! Okay, Eileen, what about your core story?

Eileen: Mine is the most ridiculous one because, as you know, we had the best parents, the most loving childhood—never a doubt that we were adored people. So my worst fear—the one I project on to my characters—is what would it be like to have the worst parents? And in my Golden Heart book, AN UNLOVED EARL, in fact in the whole series, these three men, these unloved men, were unloved by their parents, and it left a hole for them, that in different stages, on different levels, they want to fill, want to fix.

And in UNLOVED EARL he had a horrendous father who actually believed he was not his biological son because he believed his wife was cheating on him. And so he tormented the hero and tried to stuff him in certain molds, and all the hero really wanted to do was make the world better for other people, specifically for the heroine who he knew as a young child and loved her free spirit.

So the hero learned to deny everything he wants for the sake of other people, trying to make everything right for his mother, trying to make it right for the heroine, and everything he tries just keeps crumbling. In the beginning of the story, the heroine creates a horrible scandal to try to solve a problem happening to her family, and to save her from it, he’s forced to ask her to marry him. Even though there’s all this baggage that comes with it. And she accepts for the wrong reasons, so they marry, and he’s literally going to drop her off at a castle he owns in Wales. He plans to leave her there, let her live there, and go off and live his life of denial. And then they get snowed in. They’re stuck. They’re stuck, and there’s not much to do…and they basically [shifts to nudge nudge wink wink voice] find things to do.

Elisa and Dawn: [giggling] In the music room. And the library! And the hallway! So many places to find things to do!

Eileen: But then the problems that he has, with his family, come back to haunt him. But for me it all emerges from that terrible fear, “What would it be like if you didn’t have parents who loved you?” For Dawn, it was a struggle childhood, for me it was a privileged childhood, yet we both are drawn to the happy-ever-after that we can craft as writers.

Sweet! So, do you read each other’s work? 

Eileen: No!

Dawn: No, no yet! I’ve been dying to!

Eileen: Because I don’t share. As Elisa knows, I’m very bad at sharing hard work. She’s my critique partner, and I don’t share with her half the time.

Dawn: You’ve gotta get over that! It’s really hard to share, it really is, but I’m getting over it.

Yes, Eileen!! Time to get over that!!! I want to read more!!!! So, Dawn, you’re learning to share. Do you have a CP?

Dawn: I do. I met her at the very first session of Nationals last year. She’s from Canada, she writes sweet, but somehow or other we work. I had just joined RWA, and I hadn’t done anything with my writing, because I thought nobody wanted to see it. I really did believe that I sucked.

That’s so painful!

Dawn: This Golden Heart final has been so validating, you have no idea!

Eileen [laughing]: No—we have an idea!

Imposter syndrome!! The writer’s occupational hazard!

Dawn: I kept checking to make sure my name was still on the RWA website.

Eileen: But I knew she was real!! I always knew it. When she first walked into Valley Forge Romance Writers, she didn’t stand a chance. I grabbed her and made sure she stayed and put her name down for stuff. I said, “Oh, she’ll join this committee!” I wouldn’t let her go. I got my hooks in her.

So you just joined the Valley Forge group last year, Dawn? How did you hear about it?

Dawn: I wanted to join a writers’ group, something local. And I googled “Philadelphia writing group,” and RWA popped up. So I joined RWA, then found out the local chapter was VFRW.

And Eileen immediately pushed you to do things!

Dawn: Oh, yes! And I quickly discovered romance writers are the bomb, the absolute bomb.

Eileen: I pity anyone who’s not in our genre. My brother-in-law writes literary fiction, not romance, and he has no ladder, no group of people, no upwelling of other writers who know a rising tide lifts all boats. For him, it’s “stay in your lane,” and “don’t you dare.” In Romance, having contests and judges is invaluable. They’re the ones who really trained me, who taught me what in my writing worked and what didn’t, gave me tough skin and eventually helped me learn when to say, “Well, I don’t agree with you on that point.” In Romance, we’ve had that mechanism that gets us from newbie status to this point.

[This where we segue into our discussion about the value of the Golden Heart discussion, which will be skipped over here, but posted on the blog tomorrow!! Tune in again tomorrow to hear more!!]

So, Dawn, other than writing, what else have you done professionally in life? What else informs your writing? Tell us more about yourself.

Dawn: It says this in the bio I sent you, but I really and truly have lived my life in chapters. I have the growing up chapter, of course, and then straight from college I ended up becoming a photographer’s assistant, and got to go all over the world with him. To Prague before it split, and it was fabulous. And then I studied opera, became a performer. Aside from writing, my other lifelong dream was to sing on stage, and I did that. I also wanted to be a teacher, and was a Montessori teacher for a little while. Now I’m an account manager for a health care company. But writing has been a life long dream. It’s the one thing I really, really want to finish with. I love this.

What’s your ideal writing setting?

Dawn: I dream of having 500 acres in Appalachia so nobody could bother me. But I’ve kind of learned how to write with people around. Writing at hockey games, for example. Well, not at the games—during games I cheer. But at hockey practices I write. You’ll see me out there at the side of the rink with the laptop, occasionally going [makes cheerleading gesture] “Good job, honey!”

 Eileen, what about your career path? I mean, I know all about it since I’ve known you from the day you were born, but for those following along at home… How did you end up becoming a writer?

 Eileen: We know from our childhood that sitting around the kitchen table, the thing you wanted to be able to do was to tell a perfect story. A perfectly constructed joke or story that made our father laugh so hard he had to hold his eyebrow up.

[Elisa does uncanny “our dad laughing so hard he has to hold his eyebrow up” impression.]

Eileen: That was it! That was the key. So from a very young age, we loved storytelling. Our dad was a brilliant storyteller himself—though a terrible joke teller because he’d laugh so hard before the punchline. We have a brother as well, and it was always a game to see who was the fastest kid to get him to laugh, who could bring a reference back halfway through dinner to a joke that was told at the beginning. Eventually, our brother went off into a career that made lots of money. Elisa and I became storytellers. And I’ve done other creative work—I’ve been an actor and a theatrical costume designer. And then went into business because my brain works that way as well. Also because my husband’s an artist and we needed to pay a mortgage.

Dawn: Yeah. I have children who want to play hockey. I’ve got to make money.

Eileen: I wrote marketing copy for decades. Decades. Website copy. Scripts for amusement ride adventures, even. But I didn’t turn to the idea of writing fiction until Elisa suddenly called me one day and said, “I need you to read something. I want to submit it to a contest.” And I read it, and I immediately said, “Oh, this is awesome…but what if you did this and this, and tried this, and you’ve got a spelling error over here, and why is this character doing that particular thing, what’s motivating that”—it turns out my brain is really good at seeing all those things—and then the freaker finaled. In the Golden Heart, that first time.

So I went with her to Nationals in D.C., because I’m a good sister. And I thought, “Well, I’m spending $450, I’ll go to workshops.” And, oh my Lord, my ADHD brain just clicked in and I went, “Oh, I can tell stories, because it’s about structure, and I can make this structure work and put my INFJ to good use.” And I started writng, and the next year I won the Emily, and boom boom boom, I was in the same hole Elisa was [laughs]. And then I finaled in Golden Heart in 2012, and that’s really begun the rollercoaster.

Dawn: Weirdly, I also submitted to Contemporary Romance Writers’ contest, and I’m a finalist in the Stiletto! So it’s happened boom boom like that for me, too.


Eileen: Ooh!!!! That’s fabulous!! That’s the opportunity that you’re given with RWA. That community that gets you going.

Dawn: It’s not just going to Nationals. It’s the fact that there are multiple chapters out there doing things.

Eileen: And online chapters.

Dawn: Contemporary Romance Writers is entirely online! And we’re going to meet up for the first time in Denver.

Okay, we need to wrap up soon, so time for some trivial questions! What kinds of TV shows, books, stories do you guys like? What gets your engine going as a reader or viewer?

Eileen: [shouts passionately] HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON!!!

Dawn: I love that movie, too!

Eileen: To me, it’s one of the most perfectly constructed stories. I know it’s meant for children, but it’s incredible. I love rich things, emotional things, stories with strong emotional development.

I just read Helen Hwang’s The Kiss Quotient, and the beauty of those (very hot!) wonderful, engaging sex scenes—very funny, too, and very interesting to be listening to on audiobook when you’re driving home in the summer with your windows down, at stop signs—the beauty of them is that each scene is part of the character development, part of something they learn through the sex. If a book doesn’t have that, I just turn pages until they stop heaving breasts and thrusting pelvises. I love emotional stuff, Courtney Milan and Sherry Thomas and Deanna Raybourn.

Though that’s not really what I write. What I really think I am is Kristan Higgins in crinoline. The humor and slapsticky things—the whole new series I’m working on is that tone.

What about you, Dawn? What’s your media pleasure?

Dawn: I have to say I really like the Marvel movies! They’re fantastic—particularly Chris Pratt, since he’s hot! He’s a little more approachable than Thor, you know. Chris Hemsworth is gorgeous, almost too much, but Chris Pratt . . . he’s . . .

I know what you mean! We could actually get Chris Pratt!!

 Dawn: We could! And we could handle him! There’s a lot to handle, but we could.

 I believe in us!! And he’d have so much fun hanging out with us!

 Dawn [laughing]: So, um, reading-wise, when I started out, as a kid, I would read absolutely anything. Black Beauty was actually one of my first loves. Ah! That book ripped me to shreds!!

Eileen: Yes! And there’s a beautiful character arc.

Dawn: There is! And then you have the abused horse. Ginger—Ginger who gets beaten to death. I remember that so well, and I read that when I was maybe 8 or 9 or 10. And even today, I love gothic stuff, dark, spooky stuff. Scary. So I’ve read a lot of Stephen King. But I’ve also love Victoria Holt. All that old school stuff. And I also love Georgette Heyer, because she was sooooo much fun. Frothy.

Eileen: And all about the witty dialogue!

Dawn: It’s like potato chips!! You don’t ever want to stop!

Eileen: And I loooove Game of Thrones. Oh, and Harry Potter! Elisa and I, before the final Harry Potter book came out, we treated figuring out what would happen in the final book like it was a thesis project.

Oh, Lord, yes. Late night phone calls: “I was just looking back at Chapter Three of Phoenix, and Ginny makes an offhand joke that I think actually foreshadows the revelation of the Horcrux,” that kind of thing.

Dawn: I like quirky characters. There’s a wonderful old movie called Tune In Tomorrow with Peter Falk and Keanu Reeves. It’s set in a failing soap opera with all these wonderful characters and it’s fantastic! Or Hear My Song with Albert Finney as an Irish tenor.

Ooh! I love Albert Finney. Thanks for the recommendation!

Eileen: Terri Brisbin just made a great recommendation that I loved. A movie called Set It Up. A Netflix thing, so a little on the raunchy side, but absolutely a classic romance! It may not have changed my world, but I was fed exactly what I wanted to be fed as a romance novelist. You see the hero fall in love. You see the moment when it happens! And you see how they make the mistakes that almost wreck it all. Check it out! And The Amazing Jessica James, watch that, with Chris O’Dowd. And Lost in Space, for the hot robot.

Dawn: I’ve heard about the hot robot! But I don’t watch a lot of TV actually. Daphne du Maurier, she’s another of my favorites. Talk about lyric writing! I’ve always loved movies and books, not TV so much. Though when I was younger—well, we all watched Gilligan’s Island.

[Elisa starts humming the Gilligan’s Island theme song.]

Eileen: We did. We did. You want to talk about story structure? Those old sitcoms are brilliant at it. 27 minutes exactly. Good television can train you in the workings of structure.

Last quick question: Favorite writing snack?

Eileen [enthusiastically]: GRAPES!!

Dawn: Ummmmm…..

Yeah, Eileen says grapes, what’s Dawn going to say? Chocolate bon bons? That’s not fair, Eileen. Now she’s going to have to say hummus or something healthy.

Dawn: actually, I do eat a lot of nuts.

[Eileen holds up the snack plate her husband brought upstairs during the interview. It’s got carrots and peanut butter.]

Oh, maaaan!!! You guys are too healthy! Way too healthy. Okay, okay, I’m out of here.

 But wait—usually at the end of these interviews we give you guys a chance to ask a question to get the conversation rolling with our readers for the day. What question do you have?

 Eileen [talking through a crunchy, healthy mouthful of carrots and peanut butter]: Elisa, have I ever told you what my favorite position is?

Uh…stunningly, NO!! We’ve never discussed that.

Eileen: well, I told it to the Valley Forge Romance Writers at our Damon Suede event.

You did???

 Dawn: I remember this! I was there!!

Oh, no, she really did it!!

 Eileen: Yes, I did. I told them my favorite position is…this. [Eileen raises her hand high in the air.] If someone asks you to volunteer, VOLUNTEER!!

[Elisa is laughing hysterically]

Eileen: Judi Fennell wrote an article about this once, about how if you volunteer, you’re actually more likely to get published. Because you get engaged. So my question for the group is “How will you get engaged? What will you volunteer for? How will you walk up to somebody at conference and connect? What promise will you make to yourself for something you’re going to do at conference to get involved?”

Dawn? You can have the same question or a different one.

Dawn: I love that question, but as someone who’s just starting out, how are you planning to maintain the connections you make at conference? Are you going to keep communicating on Facebook? Is it going to be email, Skype calls, how often? LeeAnn who’s my critique partner who I met last year, I assumed at first that it was probably going to fizzle because I suck at that stuff, but, no, she made it happen. She said, “Okay, so when exactly are we going to Skype?” She followed through. So, everybody, how are you going to follow through? How are you going to have accountability?

Great questions. Okay, so let’s boil this down:

 Readers, what will you plan to do CONCRETELY to make a connection at Nationals (or your next chapter meeting) and what will you do to keep that connection?


Connect with D. Murphy Ryan on social media:



Twitter: @dmurphyryan

Instagram: dmurphyryan – tho, I have to warn you, I don’t know what I’m doing here.  


Connect with Eileen Emerson on social media:

You can email Eileen at

or find her on Facebook:

or follow her ramblings on Twitter: @MsEmersonWrites.


27 responses to “Meet 2018 Golden Heart Finalists Eileen Emerson and D. Murphy Ryan!”

  1. Elizabeth Langston says:

    To make connections at Nationals, I always ask at the lunch table–tell me what you write. And a good back up one–where are you from and what do you like most about it? And then just listen and be interested.

    Thanks for the great joint interview and good luck in Denver!

    • Elisa Beatty says:

      Yes! That first question works 100% of the time at Nationals! Knowing what people do for a living is a big advantage!

      And I love the “what do you love about it” part of your second go-to question. That’s brilliant! Everybody has something they love about where they’re from.

  2. One – I LOVED this interview! I felt like I was there, giggling along with you! (And hell yes, Pratt. But also Chris Evans – not as Captain America, but when he is interviewed, the way he laughs makes you feel like laughter is the most important thing in the world and I love it.)

    Two – I love the reminder to engage – and now that my schedule is firming up for Nationals I’m going to see if there are any volunteer spots that still need filling!

    Three – Congrats on your finals! And good luck in Denver, ladies!

    • Elisa Beatty says:

      Yay, Vivi, for volunteering!!!

      And, oh, yes, Chris Evans when he laughs!!! He seems like a genuinely good-hearted guy. And those eyelashes!! Sigh!!

  3. Thanks for letting us be a fly on the wall for this conversation! I’ll be back to see the Golden Heart part!

    I’m blessed to be part of the Persister class and already have connections with many of the authors in that group. So I’m looking forward to meeting everyone in person and getting to know them better. It’s easy to let friendships fall to the wayside so I fully intent to keep in touch with those I meet and hopefully continue to get together each year at nationals!

  4. Elisa Beatty says:

    Those Golden Heart sisterhoods are powerful things!!! Definitely do all you can to keep them going!

  5. Elisa Beatty says:

    Just happened to see Avery Flynn’s “Two Minute Tips” video on how to act like an extrovert at conference even when you’re an introvert:

    (as an aside…it’s actually really comforting if you remind yourself MOST writers are introverts. You will certainly not be the only one at conference who finds it terrifying to strike up a conversation with strangers. Chances are, the other people at your lunch table or beside you at the bar will be relieved if you make the first move.)

  6. What a fun interview!!! I felt like I was there with you guys. Thank you for being with us, Dawn and Eileen. Your books sound amazing, like seriously amazing, and I hope we get to meet in Denver!

  7. Yes, romance writers are incredible! Every single one I’ve met has been so welcoming and encouraging. I can’t wait to make more connections at Nationals. And I’ll do my best to keep those relationships thriving (probably email and Facebook knowing me).

  8. Super fun interview!

    To connect at Nationals, I plan to switch myself over to input mode, asking questions and focusing on getting to know people and what they write. On the home front, I’m treasurer for our chapter.

  9. Tracy Brody says:

    Congrats on your 3rd final Eileen and your first, Dawn! Love the comment about the protagonists go from “hole heart” to “whole heart.”

    I’m one of the rare extrovert writers who from my time working with high schoolers at church has a personal mission to make others feel visible. Make eye contact, smile, introduce myself to others, invite strangers to sit with me & my friends. I will say that being in the GH group, my focus will be on meeting these ladies and staying in touch with them via Facebook and Hangouts and maybe on a beach retreat or two or three. 😉

    • Elisa Beatty says:

      “a personal mission to make others feel visible”: That’s so wonderful! What a fabulous mantra for us all at Nationals!! And in life!

      Love you, lady!!

  10. What a fun interview! Thanks for posting and both Eileen & Dawn’s stories sound great. Hoping to be able to read them someday.

    I agree about the romance community being supportive. I received such help and encouragement before getting published and I do my best to pay it forward.

  11. suzanne says:

    I had the giggles and got teary eyed too reading this interview. Love the positive energy brimming between the three of you!

  12. I’m sorry I was such a lame responder to comments, today. I blame Elisa — girl only told me at 4pm that the post was up, and I was in the middle of a very hectic day at work, so popping over here was totally out of the question.


    It was a super-fun interview to give, what with me and Dawn smooshed in at my desk, trying to stay in the frame of my webcam while also checking out Elisa’s cats and her VERY clean house!

    • Elisa Beatty says:

      And my 14-year-old wandering through the background calling for the cats…

      (To clarify for everyone, Dawn and Eileen were physically together in Eileen’s beautifully renovated Victorian…I was there via Skype from my house on the West Coast. But I was there in spirit, dammit!!)

      And sorry for not sending out the bat signal until so late….

      But you can make up for it by talking to all the commenters at conference!

  13. Melonie says:

    Congrats ladies, this was a hoot! Can’t wait to catch the other half of this tomorrow 🙂 *sings* I’m just a girl who can’t say no… I have always felt that you get what you give and it’s important to do my part, so I am always volunteering for things because things need to get done! This year I’m organizing the The Golden Network Retreat at RWA and volunteered to help run the speed pitches (that should be interesting). Looking forward to seeing you in Denver!

    • Elisa Beatty says:

      Wow! That’s a great retreat, and organizing it is heroic work!! And running the speed pitches, too? You’ve got great energy, girl! (But I knew that already!)

  14. Janet Raye Stevens says:

    What a fun, funny, and fabulous interview! Makes me even more anxious for next week to get here so I can meet you! I love to meet other writers and always ask tons of questions. I fear I’m an introvert’s nightmare, LOL. See you soon!


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