Ethan Frome was written while Edith Wharton was living at The Mount, her home in Lenox, Massachusetts. Wharton likely based the story on an accident that she had heard about in 1904 in Lenox, Massachusetts. Five people total were involved in the real-life accident, four girls and one boy. They crashed into a lamppost while sledding down Courthouse Hill in Lenox. A girl named Hazel Crosby was killed in the accident. Wharton learned of the accident from one of the girls who survived, Kate Spencer, when the two became friends while both worked at the Lenox Library. The story of Ethan Frome had initially begun as a French-language composition that Wharton had to write while studying the language in Paris. It is among the few works by Wharton with a rural setting. The novel also incorporates a frame narrative, the telling of a story within another story. The audience is first introduced to the narrator's story of meeting Ethan Frome and later is told the story of the accident and events surrounding it in a flashback.
Lenox is also where Wharton had traveled extensively and had come into contact with one of the victims of the accident. Ethan and Mattie cannot escape their dreary life in Starkfield. The connection between the land and the people is a recurring theme of the novel. The narrator is amazed by the harshness of the Starkfield winters and through his experience of the winter he comes to understand the character of the people. In her introduction to the novel, Wharton talks of the "outcropping granite" of New England, the austerity of its land and the stoicism of its people. The connection between land and people is very much a part of naturalism; the environment is a powerful shaper of man's fate, and the novel dwells insistently on the cruelty of Starkfield's winters.