Author Showcase, Writing Tips and Tricks

Publication Day! Author Q&A: Mark Mannock – Hell’s Choir: A Nicholas Sharp Thriller

November is a number month with another author celebrating the most exciting of days: publication day! And this time it’s the turn of Mark Mannock and the third instalment in his Nicholas Sharp series: Hell’s Choir.

A goodwill visit to Sudan, what could possibly go wrong?

Former US marine sniper turned musician, Nicholas Sharp is performing as part of a cultural group representing the US. Suddenly caught up in the middle of a political coup, the leader of the American contingent goes missing, his security detail murdered. 
Communication with the outside world is cut off. It falls to Sharp and Greatrex to track their missing leader down. But then, things get a little complicated…

I have worked with Mark on a couple of the Nicholas Sharp titles, and I’m so excited to see how he has not only developed as a writer but also how the novels just get more exciting.

Somewhere between Lee Child’s Jack Reacher and Robert Crais’ Elvis Cole, Nicholas Sharp may be a flawed hero, but you certainly want him on your side.

Mark, welcome! The Nicholas Sharp series is your first novel series with HELL’S CHOIR being the third gripping instalment. Tell us a little more about it.

Hi Rebecca, thanks for having me.  Nicholas Sharp is a guy with a strong sense of purpose and morality, but somewhere along the way he’s lost trust in the system and to some extent himself. His father was a high-level Marine officer and his mother a concert pianist. Sharp followed his father’s footsteps into the Marines and became a successful scout sniper. That went pear-shaped when he was let down by those he trusted, causing him to take an innocent life. He sought a future elsewhere. Running in the polar opposite direction, he followed his mother’s skill set and became a successful musician. He’s not so much a star, but rather a working musician. When we met him in Killsong [Book 1 in the series; available now] he’s was still working the whole thing out when he has the opportunity to confront those who betrayed him in the military. By Hell’s Choir he’s accepted that despite his best intentions, he’ll always be part thinker, part maverick and eternally feel the need to feed his thirst for action and excitement. This third instalment finds him on a cultural goodwill tour of Sudan performing with an American R’n’B icon. The leader of the tour is a high-powered political leader who goes missing in the middle of a coup. It turns out nothing is simple for Nicholas Sharp. It fall to he and his offsider, Jack Greatrex to sort things. That’s when the plot really kicks in. One reader described Nicholas Sharp as having Jack Reacher’s attitude with John Lennon’s sensibilities. I kind of liked that.

The book is quite international, with the characters travelling across the world throughout the course of the book. Setting is such a strong presence in the novel, especially with the majority of the book taking place in Sudan – it’s almost like a character in itself. Is there a reasoning behind why you chose the setting?

I’ve always liked international thrillers. I grew up reading Ludlum and Clancy. I think the international atmosphere they created inspires a great sense of escape. I wanted to have that in my books. The reason to choose Sudan as the dominant setting for Hell’s Choir was accidentally straight forward. I try to let plot lines and locations just present themselves; if I spend enough time just mulling over ideas without putting pressure on myself, something usually grows. It is the same process I had as a songwriter. Don’t force it, just let it happen. For some reason I think the work seems less contrived that way. Anyway, I was just brainstorming locations and searching for a plot hook to start me off when I realised it was staring me in the face. I have a wonderful friend who is a refugee from Sudan. He’s a very successful music educator in Australia now, but his journey to get there was amazing. As I spoke to him more about his life, the dangers he’d faced in Sudan and how he escaped – virtually overnight with the authorities on his heels – I realized that was the beginnings of a book that was just waiting to add Nicholas Sharp and Jack Greatrex. My friend gave me his blessing to take the essence of his story and write an NS thriller around it. From then on, the book virtually wrote itself.

Who inspired you to start writing? Have your influences changed since then?

I’ve always loved words. I messed around with them constantly as a kid. I wrote songs, poems, short stories, anything I could think of. As I got better at it, the song writing took over. I’ve always been a fan of great lyricists, James Taylor and Joni Mitchell taught me a lot about wordplay. I met Joni once, when we supported her in Melbourne, but that’s another story. Combined with performing, song writing became my driving creative force for many years. Somewhere underneath it all, I always suspected I had a book in me, but it took a long time to get around to it. Thrillers and crime novels always provided me with the most alluring escape, so those genres were the natural course to take. As I mentioned, Ludlum and Clancy were huge influences at the beginning. I still return to them sometimes. Fleming is another, although frighteningly dated, particularly with Bond’s attitude to women in the original books. One of my favourite authors now is Robert Crais. I love the humanity and self-effacing attitude of his protagonist, Elvis Cole. I find I’m as keen to catch up with the character as much as engage with the plot when I turn the first page of his books. I love imperfect heroes such as Cole and even Jack Ryan.

What is the biggest challenge you faced when writing your first novel? How did you overcome it? Has writing got easier since you’ve got a few novels under your belt?

Probably like most authors the biggest challenge was fear. Can I do this or will I be rubbish? I was talking about writing with a very successful song writing friend the other day. He told me that even though he was a recognised and accomplished lyricist the reason he’d never tried to write a book was that he felt who couldn’t reach the same professional standard as an author that he has as a song writer. That hit home with me, the difference is I was foolish enough to try. I wrote the first chapter and sent it to a friend. He has a military background and had served with the British forces in Iraq; if it was no good, I knew he’d tell me. His response was only three words: “Chapter two please.” That got me going. My wife, Sarah, is also my greatest support and critic. Nothing gets past her. She used to work as a customs officer and has even done some undercover work. It’s a bit sad when your wife has to correct your fight scenes.

These days I feel way more confident. With each novel I grow more certain that I can deliver what I have in mind. It’s still pretty nervewracking both waiting for editorial feedback and the first reviews. I have absolute faith in my readers and don’t want to let them down.

Do you like to plan the action of your novels (plotter) or do you just let them write themselves (pantser!)?

Panster, absolutely. I once heard it called “writing into the dark”; I like that term better. By not knowing what’s going to happen in advance, I feel more involved in the story. I keep writing to find out what will happen next. In some ways it’s not that different from reading a book, except that there are no words on the page when you start each day. The most planning I ever do is a two-page outline, but most times the characters decide to go somewhere else anyway. This may sound a little crazy, but there was one point in Killsong when Nicholas Sharp was about to board a military plane to go to Iraq at Andrews Joint Base. Out of the blue, a new character pulled up in a jeep and introduced himself as Elliot Brooker. I immediately disliked him and thought to myself who the hell are you and what are you doing here? Of course he became a vital character as the book progressed. I felt more like a reader than the writer at that point.

You used to work in the music industry before picking up the pen. Nicholas Sharp is a musician by night, but his day job is very different. Did you have to do a lot of research for the character? Was it difficult getting the details right?

For the music side of the novels I do virtually no research at all. I’ve lived that life and have the scars to show for it. The military aspect is something completely different. I’ve never served, although my father was a decorated hero and was shot twice in WW2. (By the way, yes, I’m aware of the parallels with Sharp’s backstory, and it’s probably not helped by the fact my mother was my first piano teacher, but that’s one for the analysist’s couch). I’ve spent countless hours researching all things military: guns, aircraft, military bases in the US, England and Iraq. In fact, it got to the point where I kind of overdid it. My wife pointed out to me that there were times the first book almost read like a military manual. I think I was trying to prove I had the knowledge. In the end, I took quite a bit out and the book read much better. Sometimes it’s what you don’t say.

Nicholas Sharp always seems to find himself in sticky situations quite unintentionally. Can we look forward to more titles in the series?

That’s the plan. Both the reader and I have to accept that Sharp is just the type of guy that keeps ending up in the wrong place at the wrong time. On one hand, it suspends belief that so much could happen to one person, on the other hand, if he didn’t get caught up in these situations there’d be no stories.  I’m currently working on the fourth full novel. It’s called Silent Voice. The book is loosely based on the situation of some real protest musicians fighting for a level of democracy in their own country. They end up fleeing their homeland just to survive. In the book, they hide up in LA and guess who’s there to help them out?

What is your desert-island read?

Hard question. Damn! Probably the Last Detective from Robert Crais. Ask me next week – it will be something different.

Do you have any writing tips to share?

Tom Hanks once said about acting something along the lines of “show up, hit your mark and go there.” I think the same thing can be said about writing. Get out of bed, sit your bum on the seat and “go there”. I try to focus more about going there and living in the story’s moment than writing clever words.

What is your writing process like? Do you have a routine? A favourite place to write? 

I’m erratic but when life allows me a routine, I prefer writing in the morning. I average around 3000 words a day. I’m fortunate I have a desk with a distant sea view. I like to stare and think.

Also most important question. Favourite writing snack?!

Well I actually don’t snack while I write, but I do reward myself at the end of a hard day. Usually a very dry martini (based on the recipe from Duke’s bar in London) accompanied by some Jarlsberg cheese and a handful of cashew nuts.

Hell’s Choir publishes today and is available now, along with the rest of the Nicholas Sharp series.

If this has whet your appetite to delve into the page of this race-against-time action thriller, read below for an extract of Hell’s Choir that perfectly demonstrates Mark’s edge-of-your-seat, action-packed writing.

There wasn’t a sound. None at all. That was the trouble.

I coaxed my eyes open. An army of pain rampaged through my head, probing for more nerves to torture.

According to the blazing sun penetrating the window, it must have been morning. I’d been unconscious for at least ten hours. I’d put up a good fight the night before, but in the end, I was outnumbered and outclassed.

Now it was the silence—and the pain—that woke me.

Forcing myself out of bed, I threw on a pair of jeans and padded over to the hotel-room door. What I saw in the corridor was surprising—or rather, what I didn’t see was the issue. No people, no housekeeping staff, no cleaning trolleys. Nothing. Midmorning in a busy international hotel. Something was not right.

I retreated into my room, tossed down some aspirin to calm my exploding head, put on a shirt and a pair of shoes, then headed back out into the passageway. There could be an innocent explanation, only somewhere in the back of my mind I feared otherwise.

The soft carpet cushioned underfoot as I strode toward the elevator area. I pressed the down button; it lit up. Reassuring. Eventually the elevator arrived. I stepped in and pressed G. Surely there’d be people on the ground floor who would know what was going on.

The elevator clunked to a stop. As the doors opened, I gazed expectantly across the crowded lobby—except that it wasn’t. Not a soul in sight. There should have been guests, there should have been hotel staff behind the reception desk, and more than anything else there should have been Secret Service personnel at every door.


Without thinking, I closed the elevator door, immediately pressing the tenth-floor button. Jefferson Blake had the entire floor reserved for his immediate entourage. Until that point, it hadn’t occurred to me that Secret Service agents should also have been manning each elevator, ensuring that no one exited at Blake’s floor. They weren’t there. They weren’t anywhere.

On the way up, I felt my nerves tense. Still, I prayed for a simple, logical solution. Maybe a bomb-threat evacuation. Fire alarm drill that I’d slept through? That could be it.

The light above the elevator door lit up the number ten. The ascending motion stopped. The doors slid open. As I looked across the hallway, I heard a sharp intake of breath. It was mine. At that same instant, any hope of a relaxing morning disappeared.

There were two Secret Service agents in view, both lying awkwardly on the floor. Taking three steps over to the first agent, I kneeled down and placed two fingers on his neck to check for a pulse. There was none. Without standing up, I turned and leaned toward the other agent, a woman. She was dead too.

A coldness enveloped me. It was a familiar feeling, the same as I experienced as a US Marine scout sniper when I laid eyes on a potential target. A professional needed to drain the emotional charge out of the moment. I was no longer a professional sniper, but some habits never leave you.

My Marine training took precedence over any instinct for survival as I charged along the corridor toward Jefferson Blake’s room. I rounded the corner leading to his sealed off area and saw the four agents that should have been guarding his room splayed on the ground. I bolted passed them. There was no time to stop to check their health status. My primary concern was Blake.

The double doors of his suite smashed against the walls as I shoved my way through and raced down the short corridor that led to the principal living area. Two more agents were lying prone on the couch. Dead.

I scanned the rest of the room. A sprawling array of lounges and luxurious armchairs dominated the two separate sitting areas. Floor-to-ceiling windows ran the full length of the far wall, overlooking the city skyline. I almost smiled at the black grand piano perched extravagantly in the far corner. Almost. This was the most expensive and luxurious accommodation that you could find in the city of Khartoum, although that thought bore little relevance at that moment. Apart from the dead agents, there was no one else in sight.

The cold numbness continued to surge within me as I hurried from room to room, searching. I discovered two more bodies in the study; one slumped at a desk, the other on the carpet —probably departmental aides. At any moment, I was expecting to find Jefferson Blake’s body.

I found no one else. Blake had disappeared.

Then the unimaginable hit me. I wanted to be wrong, but there could be only one explanation.

Someone had just kidnapped the vice president of the United States of America.

Hell’s Choir publishes today and is available now, along with the rest of the Nicholas Sharp series.

About Mark Mannock

Mark Mannock was born in Melbourne, Australia. He has had an extensive career in the music industry including supporting, recording with or writing for Tina Turner, Joni Mitchell, The Eurythmics, Irene Cara and David Hudson. His recorded work with Lia Scallon has twice been long-listed for Grammy Awards. 

As a composer/songwriter Mark’s music has been used across the world in countless television and theatre contexts, including the American Survivor TV series and Sleuth playwright Anthony Shaffer’s later productions.

Mark has also been active in music education across Australia promoting student’s ownership and voice in their own educational music journeys. He has won several awards for his endeavours in this area.

Mark is presently writing the Nicholas Sharp thriller series about a disillusioned former US sniper whose past plagues him as he makes his way in the contemporary music industry. Sharp is a man whose insatiable curiosity and embedded moral compass lead him to places he ought not go. The series is currently read in over 50 countries.

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