Tracy Chevalier's inspiration for Girl with a Pearl Earring was a poster of Johannes Vermeer's Girl with a Pearl Earring. She bought the poster as a nineteen-year-old, and it hung wherever she lived for sixteen years. Chevalier notes that the "ambiguous look" on the girl's face left the "most lasting impression" on her. She describes the girl's expression "to be a mass of contradictions: innocent yet experienced, joyous yet tearful, full of longing and yet full of loss." She began to think that the girl had directed all these emotions at the painter, and began to think of the "story behind that look".
Chevalier's research included reading the history of the period, studying the paintings of Vermeer and his peers, and spending several days in Delft. Pregnant at the time of researching and writing, she finished the work in eight months, because, as she admitted, she had a "biological deadline".