Perhaps the strongest inspiration for Hurston's writing of Their Eyes Were Watching God was her former lover Percival Punter. Hurston writes in her autobiography that the romance between Janie and Tea Cake was inspired by a tumultuous love affair. She described falling in love with the man as "a parachute jump". Like Janie in the novel, Hurston was significantly older than her lover. Like Tea Cake, Punter was sexually dominant and sometimes violent. Hurston wrote Their Eyes Were Watching God three weeks after the tumultuous conclusion of her relationship with Punter. She wrote in her autobiography that she had "tried to embalm all the tenderness of [her] passion for him." With this emotional inspiration, Hurston went on to paint the picture of Their Eyes Were Watching God using her personal experience and research as a template.
In 1927, a decade before writing Their Eyes Were Watching God, Hurston traveled south to collect folk songs and folk tales through an anthropological research fellowship arranged by her Barnard College mentor Franz Boas. The all-black Eatonville of Their Eyes Were Watching God is based on the all-black town of the same name in which Hurston grew up. The town's weekly announced in 1889, "Colored People of the United States: Solve the great race problem by securing a home in Eatonville, Florida, a Negro city governed by negroes." The hurricane that symbolizes the climax of Hurston's story also has an historical inspiration; in 1928, "a hurricane ravaged both coastal and inland areas of Florida, bringing torrential rains that broke the dikes of Lake Okeechobee". Scholars of the African diaspora note the cultural practices common to the Caribbean, Africa, and the United States in Their Eyes Were Watching God.
Hurston wrote Their Eyes Were Watching God while on a Guggenheim Fellowship in Haiti to research Obeah practices in the West Indies.