Scott O'Dell was born in Los Angeles on May 23, 1898. He attended Occidental College in 1919, the University of Wisconsin in 1920, Stanford University from 1920 to 1921, and the University of Rome in 1925. Before O'Dell began writing children's novels, he wrote eight books for adults. O'Dell is best known for the historical novels he wrote for children. Among his works are The King's Fifth, The Black Pearl, The Captive, The Feathered Serpent, and The Amethyst Ring. Island of the Blue Dolphins was O'Dell's first children's book, written in 1960.

Island of the Blue Dolphins is based on the true story of The Lost Woman of San Nicolas. From 1835 to 1853, a Native American woman lived alone on an island off the Californian coast known as La Isla de San Nicolas. Discovered by Sebastian Vizcaino in 1602, the island had been inhabited by indigenous peoples since around 2000 B.C. In 1835, when Captain Hubbard carried these people away from the island they called Ghalas-at, a girl jumped from his schooner into the sea. Eighteen years later, Captain Nidever landed on Ghalas-at, and discovered that the woman was still living there. She lived in a hut on the headland with her dog. She was later befriended by Father Gonzales of the Santa Barbara Mission, though the two could only communicate using signs, since no one could understand the woman's language. Father Gonzalez learned from the woman that her brother had been killed by wild dogs. The Lost Woman of San Nicolas is buried on a hill near the Santa Barbara Mission.

In Island of the Blue Dolphins, Scott O'Dell has tried to re-create the story of The Lost Woman of San Nicolas from the facts that he was able to gather about her life.