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Shaara was born in Jersey City in 1929, the son of Italian immigrants (it was originally spelled "Sciarra"). He graduated from Rutgers University in 1951, and his early short stories were science fiction published in Galaxy Magazine in 1952. He later began writing straight fiction, and eventually published more than 70 short stories in such magazines as Playboy, Redbook, Cosmopolitan, The Saturday Evening Post, and many others.
He moved with his family to Florida in the mid-1950's, where he taught English, literature and creative writing at Florida State University in Tallahassee, and continued to write short stories. He achieved critical success with his first novel The Broken Place in 1968, but it was a commercial disappointment.
The Killer Angels took 7 years to write. His late nights of writing, cigarettes and coffee, and his deep involvement with his story of Gettysburg took a toll. In 1965 he suffered a major heart attack, at only 36 years of age. It was rejected by the first 15 publishers who saw the manuscript, but was finally bought by a small independent publisher in 1973. It won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1975, but still never enjoyed commercial success.
After suffering the effects of a terrible motorcycle accident, Shaara struggled to maintain the quality of his writing, and published one last novel The Noah Conspiracy in 1981. He then completed a baseball manuscript but did not find a publisher.
Shaara suffered his second heart attack and died, on May 5, 1988, after a long and often frustrating writing career. The baseball manuscript was published posthumously as "For Love of the Game".
Michael Shaara's son Jeff Shaara has also written two Civil War novels.