Woolf began writing To the Lighthouse partly as a way of understanding and dealing with unresolved issues concerning both her parents and indeed there are many similarities between the plot and her own life. Her visits with her parents and family to St Ives, Cornwall, where her father rented a house, were perhaps the happiest times of Woolf's life, but when she was thirteen her mother died and, like Mr. Ramsay, her father Leslie Stephen plunged into gloom and self-pity. Woolf's sister Vanessa Bell wrote that reading the sections of the novel that describe Mrs Ramsay was like seeing her mother raised from the dead. Their brother Adrian was not allowed to go on an expedition to Godrevy Lighthouse, just as in the novel James looks forward to visiting the lighthouse and is disappointed when the trip is cancelled. Lily Briscoe's meditations on painting are a way for Woolf to explore her own creative process (and also that of her painter sister), since Woolf thought of writing in the same way that Lily thought of painting.
Woolf's father began renting Talland House in St. Ives, in 1882, shortly after Woolf's own birth. The house was used by the family as a family retreat during the summer for the next ten years. The location of the main story in To the Lighthouse, the house on the Hebridean island, was formed by Woolf in imitation of Talland House. Many actual features from St Ives Bay are carried into the story, including the gardens leading down to the sea, the sea itself, and the lighthouse.
Although in the novel the Ramsays are able to return to the house on Skye after the war, the Stephens had given up Talland House by that time. After the war, Virginia Woolf visited Talland House under its new ownership with her sister Vanessa, and Woolf repeated the journey later, long after her parents were dead. They published it together at their Hogarth Press in London in 1927. The first impression of 3000 copies of 320 pages measuring 7 1⁄2 by 5 inches (191 by 127 mm) was bound in blue cloth. The book outsold all Woolf's previous novels, and the proceeds enabled the Woolfs to buy a car.