Terrain Modeling for Dummies

The start of what was going to be a long day.

   The territory for the book I am writing on clouds has been in flux these past few months. I had originally planned to write exclusively about the clouds I could see from Olympia. Then I wanted to go to Costa Rica and visit the Monteverde Cloud Forest and to the Southwest because the clouds were different there. Eventually, I focussed on writing about clouds in Washington State--my book being a natural history of how the state's topography influences cloud formation. 
   I selected several sites in the state's physiographic provinces, but time flew by and I made but one trip. I thought about planning more, but you just can't schedule a cloud-watching vacation the way you can a bird-watching or whale-watching vacation. What if I got all the way to the southeast corner of the state and it was (gasp!) sunny! And did I really need to travel that far to see a cumulus cloud I could very well see from my back yard? Part of my book is to encourage people to enjoy the clouds right over their heads; no one needs to travel great distances to accomplish this. 
So, after a bit of hemming and hawing, I've decided to focus on a swath of Western Washington where I spend most of my time, the places I have been drawn to over and over, the nearby places that I can walk or bike to and the far-away places where I go for a day trip or weekend.
   This swath is convenient and I have gerrymandered into territory I am calling a "Mega Hydrologic Cycle Unit." The clouds I see from Olympia appear and disappear within this territory. What does this territory look like? I tried to draw it in my notebook: 
   I could see the territory--but I couldn't feel the terrain. I have a relief map of Washington State, but many of the places I am planning to write about are not on it. I needed my own personalized, customized, relief map of my territory. So I bought some kiddie modeling clay, found a old whiteboard in a closet, sketched out the territory, and started smushing modeling the clay. 

Luckily, there was coffee.
In case you didn't recognize it, this is southwest Washington. 

Apparently, south Puget Sound is very complex and cannot be easily rendered  without the help of glaciers and a millennium or two. The peninsula of land at center where Olympia is situated is roughly the size of Florida. It is not.
In fact, there are several peninsulas of land in South Puget Sound. None look quite like these.
Except from a distance. 
Now the water--bays, lakes, canals, a strait, and some generalized water.
Problems develop with scale and realism. The Black Hills looks like a wad of wasabi; the Nisqually River  has overflowed its banks and several miles of floodplain; Mount Rainier and the Cascades look like...a lot of wasabi.
It is okay to laugh at this one. The chewing gum atop Mt. Rainier is actually a snow-cap made of clay. That blue thing is not the tail of a mouse hiding under the snow, but the Nisqually River flowing from the Nisqually Glacier through/above what appears to be a landscape of Gulden's Mustard toward Puget Sound. But you get the idea.
Shortly after this sensitive rendering of Lake Quinault and the rain-forested valleys of the Olympic Peninsula, I decided to call it quits for the day. Now, a watering can and some cotton balls and--voila!--nimbostratus!