A Chillicothe True Crime Case Inspires Tiffany McDaniel’s “On the Savage Side”

The Pickaway County author explores trauma and sisterhood in her latest novel.

Brittany Moseley
Author Tiffany McDaniel used the true crime case of the Chillicothe Six as inspiration for her third novel.

Early on in Tiffany McDaniel’s new novel, “On The Savage Side,” the character Mamaw Milkweed has a conversation with her two young granddaughters about witches. “A witch is merely a woman who is punished for being wiser than a man. That’s why they burned her,” she explains. “They tried to burn away her power because a woman who says more than she’s supposed to say, and does more than she’s supposed to do, is a woman they’ll try to silence and destroy.”

“On The Savage Side” is a book about women and the ways their lives are destroyed by addiction, violence and generational trauma. But it’s also a book about sisterhood and the relationships that keep people afloat in grim situations. The novel, which will be released on Feb. 14, is the Pickaway County author’s third after 2016’s “The Summer That Melted Everything” and 2020’s “Betty.”

The story centers on Arcade and Daffodil (Arc and Daffy for short), twin sisters in Chillicothe who experience death, addiction and abuse in their childhood. As they grow up, the two struggle with the same issues that afflicted their parents, all while trying to create a space for themselves and their friends (the “Chillicothe Queens”) in the small Southern Ohio city.

“I’d grown up with kids like Arc and Daffy, and I saw these kids whose parents were addicts, and I saw how that affected them and the kind of abuse they suffered because of that,” McDaniel says. “I really wanted to infuse Arc and Daffy with those elements so that readers can see how those early years really shaped who they would become as adults.”

Graffiti about Shasta Himelrick, one of the Chillicothe Six

The book is inspired by the case of the Chillicothe Six. Between May 2014 and May 2015, six women went missing in the city. Four of them were later found dead, and two are still missing. Many of the women knew each other, and all struggled with addiction. A coroner ruled that one of the women, Tameka Lynch, died from a drug overdose, and another, Shasta Himelrick, died by suicide. (Himelrick’s family disputes this ruling.) In 2016, Jason McCrary was convicted of murdering one of the women, Timberly Claytor. No other arrests have been made in any of the cases. Some believe there are more missing and murdered women who can be linked to the Chillicothe Six. However, law enforcement has never said there is a connection between any of the cases.

For McDaniel, who grew up in Southern and Central Ohio, her decision to write the book came from a personal connection. While researching the case, she discovered she went to school with a missing woman linked by some to the Chillicothe murders.

Although McDaniel stresses that all the characters in the book are fictional, the real Chillicothe Six were never far from her mind during the writing process. “I really wanted to emphasize who these women might have been and to show that they were more than the victims behind the headlines,” she says. “When I first heard about the case, [the] community reaction from where I was, was that the women—because of their links to certain lifestyle choices and all of that—there was an idea that they had been active participants in their deaths. I really wanted to illustrate the opposite of that and hopefully capture the spirit of who they were and to help people identify with them a little more. Because I think when you see those headlines, it causes readers and the audience to have a certain idea about who those women might have been.”

In many ways, the city of Chillicothe is another character in the book. It’s a city of contradictions, both beautiful and stark, lush and ravaged. The smoke from the town’s paper mill is described as the dust kicked up by galloping horses underground. The river is referred to as a woman who holds the bodies of the victims, as well as their hopes and secrets. “Sometimes I thought the whole of Chillicothe on a map would be but a bruised mark, like it’d come into contact with a difficult thing,” the character Arc says.

The paper mill in Chillicothe

This balance of dark and light is prevalent throughout “On The Savage Side.” Mama Milkweed explains to Arc and Daffy that knitted quilts, like life, have a beautiful side—“all the things that make you the happiest”—and a savage side—“the side kind to the mood of monsters and all the things they play with.” On one side are difficult-to-read scenes about addiction, death and child abuse. On the other side are beautifully crafted dialogue (“I wish they knew how hard it is to love a child you can’t find,” says one character) and vibrant moments of poetic imagery (“If it was dirt that sang to me, it was water that sang to Daffy,” Arc says).

“I really wanted to portray these characters in a way that you felt those moments of that beautiful side, but realized they were living on the savage side,” McDaniel says. “And through the smoke from the paper mill and through the grit and grime on the streets, that there was still singing among the characters.”

This story is from the February 2023 issue of Columbus Monthly.