YORKSHIRE-BORN novelist and poet Helen Cox lives in Roker on the North-East coast. She was born in Northallerton in 1981 and subsequently lived both on the Solway coast and in Thirsk. Helen has had numerous jobs in a range of fields including banking, hospitality, sports leisure, fashion retail, copywriting and secondary education, but now writes full-time while teaching the odd online course for the creative writing department at City Lit college in London. Helen and her husband, who works at the National Archives, are awaiting their first foster dog from Guide Dogs UK, with a little bundle of fur expected to arrive in April.

Why did you set your latest book in Durham?

From the outset I decided that although the characters were based in York, I wanted each book to showcase a different setting, somewhere in the North. This is partly for representational reasons. I feel a lot of stories are either London-focused or have a big city setting and that smaller places, particularly in the North, aren’t as well represented as they could be.

In addition, to not move location when you’re writing a mystery series risks that cliché of all the bodies turning up in one small geographical patch, every time. Consequently, I am always looking for evocative locations to set the key moments in each book and with its ancient architecture, tranquil riverside walks and first-class history of academia, Durham was an obvious. The inspiring views across the city made a striking, and welcome, contrast to the central mystery.

Where did you do your research?

Although I’ve had several trips to Durham over the years, I did go back for a few research trips with the plot of my book in mind. As soon as I took a walk by the Wear, overlooked by the cathedral, I knew that would be a central location in the mystery. There was something about that walk in Durham that moved me more deeply than other, similar meanders. It was so tranquil. The cathedral was bathed in afternoon sunlight. The leaves were just turning autumnal. You will find a very similar rendering of these observances in the book itself.

I also visited the library buildings at the university (any excuse to be that close to that many books), spent several hours soaking up the ambience of Silver Street and visited the cathedral. The highlight was probably finding that Durham Cathedral held St Cuthbert’s 7th Century coffin in its collection. Durham’s historic value and significance cannot be overstated.

What’s your favourite day out in the region?

Picking just one feels like an almost impossible task but, if pushed, I’d probably opt for a walk along the moorland at Rosedale on a sunny June day, just as the cross-leaved heather is starting to bloom. There’s just so much space out there that often it is just you, the soil and the sky. A truly peaceful sojourn.

Rosedale heather. Picture: Nikki Bowling

Rosedale heather. Picture: Nikki Bowling

Ideally, we’d walk down Rosedale Chimney Bank, rather than up it (have you ever tried to walk up it? My advice is to give that a miss!). From there, it’s not very far to Whitby – the perfect location to spend dusks on warm June evenings. Watching the sunset over the startling silhouettes of the whale bones and Whitby Abbey on either side of the harbour while eating chips (with scraps!). I’m not convinced life gets much better than this.

What is your favourite landmark?

The Tees Transporter Bridge in Middlesbrough. My paternal grandparents lived in Middlesbrough and my parents both come from there. Whenever we would visit my grandparents, aunts and uncles, the car would crest over the top of Ormesby Bank and the Tees Transporter – or the Tranny as she is affectionately known – would be lit up on the skyline. It came to symbolise family for me.

I wrote a book about its history about a decade ago. It’s out of print at present but getting it back in print is definitely on my to-do list. I hear on the news that the structure is under threat. I can only hope my beloved bridge is preserved as it represents local resilience for so many from the region.

What are you reading/watching at the moment?

I am mostly comfort reading and watching due to the larger global picture. Which means I’m reading The Princess Bride by William Goldman – a book I have read every year since I was 21 because it’s so funny and clever and sweet and strangely profound. I’ve also been rewatching a lot of Alias – a spy show starring Jennifer Garner from about 20 years ago. Right now, I’m most interested in consuming media that I can trust to end on a note of hope. I know from the emails I receive from my readership that I’m not alone.

What is your inspiration?

My inspiration is very wide-reaching and difficult to quantify since I disqualify nothing. Recurring sources of inspiration for me have included my home county and landscapes, the books of Daphne du Maurier, movies from my youth such as Back to the Future and Labyrinth, the ocean, the art of Wassily Kandinksy, New York City, the poetry of Sylvia Plath and songs by Lana Del Rey. We live in such a wealthy time in terms of culture that it seems foolish to rule anything out. I don’t believe that literary inspiration is a matter of reading The Odyssey and Charles Dickens’ back catalogue. It’s perfectly legitimate to find inspiration from Die Hard and Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Especially since Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony features in Die Hard.

What is your proudest achievement?

I would have to say running an independent film magazine for five years (yes, you knew those Die Hard references were coming from somewhere). I don’t know what possessed me to think that I could set up my own magazine. It was a ridiculous thing to do alongside my full-time job as an English teacher. I never knew if I’d make it to the next issue, but in the end I folded the magazine on my own terms after five years to focus on writing fiction. There were a lot of late nights. There were a lot of typos. There were a lot of films that were difficult to say a good word about. But I wouldn’t trade that five-year learning curve for anything.

What is the best thing about living in the region?

Of all of them, this is the easiest question to answer. The answer is: the people. There is something very special and unique about the people in our region. Despite the many trials, challenges and tragedies over the years. Despite being largely ignored by those with the power to instigate change and often unfair portrayals by the national media, the people of the North remain generous, friendly, open-hearted. The community spirit we have in the North is rare and precious. The willingness to help out neighbours and strangers alike. My hope is that we hold onto that inherent goodness, I know it will be needed in the days, weeks and months ahead.

  • Death Awaits in Durham by Helen Cox – The Kitt Hartley Yorkshire Mysteries Book 4 (Quercus £8.99)