The novel is Veronica Roth's debut novel and was published a little over a year after Roth graduated with a Bachelor's degree from the Creative Writing program at Northwestern University. Roth wrote the novel during her senior year winter break and sold movie rights to the novel before she graduated.
The novel is set in a post-apocalyptic Chicago. Roth indicated that she did not originally intend to use Chicago as the setting:
"I wrote the rough draft and I felt like it needed a more grounded sense of place, and I looked at the city I had described, which is all these trains constantly moving, and this lake marsh, and these rivers. And I realized that it was Chicago already, and it was just because that's the city I've known and loved the longest."