Tracy Chevalier's inspiration for the novel was a poster of Johannes Vermeer's Girl with a Pearl Earring. She had bought the poster as a nineteen-year-old and it hung wherever she lived for sixteen years. Chevalier noted that the "ambiguous look" on the girl's face left a 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 of "the story behind that look”, imagining it as directed at the painter.
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 she had a "biological deadline".